Is the Alex Smith era over in SF?

With the end of the league year, quarterback Alex Smith is now a free agent. He'll test the waters to see if he can find a new team and compete for a job, but the door remains open on a return to the 49ers.

The Alex Smith era is over. Or not.

With the end of business Thursday, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback officially entered the world of free agency. While the NFL and the players association agreed to continue negotiating toward a new collective bargaining agreement, everything else came to a screeching half – free-signings, trades, contract extensions and any other player movement.

That means nothing will happen until the two sides agree on a new CBA, and now they've given themselves until March 11 at 2 p.m. PT to find a common ground. It also means free agents like Smith will have to wait to measure their value.

If coach Jim Harbaugh is to be believed, the 49ers are a fallback option for Smith. Harbaugh has said some nice things about the quarterback and repeated them often enough that it's reasonable to believe there's a fit under the new coaching leadership. Although general manager Trent Baalke hasn't been as effusive – in fact, he's said little about Smith – it's clear Smith could return under a one-year deal. David Carr is the only quarterback currently under contract for 2011.

How will fans react if Smith comes back? It's doubtful Harbaugh cares, but Smith's six years with the Niners were hardly memorable. He had one productive season under offensive coordinator Norv Turner and suffered through some injuries that undoubtedly stalled his development. But Harbaugh likes smart players, and Smith is smart. Even so, he has more interceptions (53) than touchdown passes (51), and his career passer rating (72.1) is nothing to talk about.

It was clear pretty early that Smith was going to wait and test the free-agent waters before deciding whether to come back. It's even possible Harbaugh told him to do just that and then let the team know his interest later. If Smith believes he has a legitimate shot at winning a starting job elsewhere, he'll take it. If the 49ers can't make a trade for someone like Kevin Kolb or Carson Palmer, they may actually want Smith in uniform again. The draft is unlikely to provide them with a rookie starter the caliber of Sam Bradford or Matthew Stafford.

So that's where it stands. Alex Smith is free to find another team as soon as there's a new CBA. He's also free to reach out to the 49ers if there are no takers.

That might make Harbaugh happy, but it probably won't please the fans.

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