Smith or JTO: Which QB has future with 49ers?

Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan is getting his first chance to be a NFL starting quarterback at age 29. When he signed with the 49ers in March, he was never thought of as the team's quarterback of the future. But after three starts, O'Sullivan seems to be building a case to carve out a future with the 49ers - or wherever offensive coordinator Mike Martz goes next. But what about Alex Smith?

Even after he was announced as the starter in the summer, most still did not view him as anything more than a short-term answer at the position. But O'Sullivan enters Sunday's game against New Orleans - the quarter pole of his first season with the team - as the second-rated quarterback in the NFC and No. 4 overall in the NFL.

And he has played every bit as well as his 104.6 rating might suggest while leading the 49ers to a 2-1 start as the head to New Orleans (1-2) in a game that figures to be a good measuring stick for where the 49ers really stand after last week's impressive 31-13 rout over a weak Detroit team.

O'Sullivan signed a one-year contract with the 49ers, and the club gets the veteran salary-cap benefit. Although he'll make $645,000 this season, he counts just $491,000 against the cap.

Because of the veteran cap discount, the 49ers are prohibited from signing him to a contract extension before the start of free agency. That means O'Sullivan has no choice but to hit the open market. At that point, his price tag could be driven up, and probably will be.

The 49ers always have had a good working relationship with O'Sullivan's agent, Steve Baker, who has represented several of their players over the years, including quarterback Jeff Garcia. Although they can't sign O'Sullivan to an extension until next year at the earliest, that doesn't mean they can't make overtures to Baker and set up the parameters of an agreement long before.

But it's still way too early for any of that kind of thinking. The 49ers must still wait to see how things play out the rest of the season, or at least into November, before they consider O'Sullivan as a part of the team's long-term future.

Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, has an uncertain future with the 49ers. He is on injured reserve, and general manager Scot McCloughan has said Smith will not return next season at his $9.625 million salary.

Another injury to his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder is the latest setback for Smith, who was beaten out for the starting job by O'Sullivan this summer. Smith has faced a series of struggles since he was drafted while trying to establish himself as the team's franchise quarterback.

Still, Smith asked to remain with the team and go to all meetings while he's on injured reserve. Coach Mike Nolan said he's excited that Smith wanted to remain with the club. But he has not spoken to him about his future with the 49ers.

"IR players typically come out and get their treatment and then kind of go," Nolan said. "Alex and I spoke at length at the time that he was going to be on IR and he asked me, ‘What can I do? Because I want to be around here for everything.' So Alex goes to all of the meetings. He's here all day. He's responsible to be here all day. It's not up to him. Once he decided that, he goes through the entire day just as if he was on the roster, other than he cannot participate in practice. He goes to practice, he stands behind drills and he watches. Otherwise, he is here doing everything. And that's what he's committed to for the season.

"It's like I said all along before Alex got hurt, I think Alex has great trust that the system that's in place is one that he can flourish in as well. And he's excited about that. Because it's very disciplined and detailed, and that's kind of the way he thinks. And it gives him a chance to be successful."

So does that mean Smith still has a future with the 49er? If the team goes forward with O'Sullivan, there might not be room for Smith in the team's plans any longer, especially at his price tag. He would have to take a massive pay cut to remain with the team, but that probably is the case wherever else Smith might land in the NFL.

"The fact that he wants to work is where we kind of left it," Nolan said. "That's a very positive note from his standpoint of wanting to be a real good player and the possibility of being here. We'll have to cross that bridge when we get there."

But the 49ers might find themselves crossing another bridge instead if O'Sullivan keeps playing the way he is now.

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