What is Lions interest in Utah QB Alex Smith?

Are Lions ready to cut the cord with starter Harrington? Lions' insider Mike Fowler provides his insight on an issue that is gaining steam with Lions' fans.

ALLEN PARK - The text of the story by Salt Lake City Tribune reporter Michael C. Lewis was simple enough, Utah quarterback Alex Smith was visiting the Lions last Wednesday.

But the Lions denied that the quarterback was visiting and told the media it was actually Stanford tight end Alex Smith who was visiting. That was published by both major Detroit daily newspapers on Thursday. But two plus two, didn't add up to four in this case. Smith is projected as somewhere near the third or fourth best tight end prospect and a marginal first round pick, so why would the Lions meet with a player who isn't expected to go high when they hold the tenth overall pick in next Saturday's (April 22) NFL draft?

The Lions later admitted it was indeed Alex Smith, the quarterback and nephew of Michigan State head football coach John L. Smith, who visited the team last Wednesday. Now the question becomes why? Why did the Lions deny that Smith was visiting instead of simply attributing it to performing due diligence? Did they just get the players confused or is something more going on here?

The first thought that comes to mind is that Joey Harrington's future in Detroit is indeed in doubt. That's because this isn't the first time that Harrington's future prospects as a quarterback in Detroit have been questioned.

The former Oregon star has been not lived up to expectations since being drafted third overall in the 2002 NFL draft. Harrington was the lowest rated full time starting quarterback to keep his starting job with the exception of Carson Palmer of Cincinnati, who was a first year starter for the Bengals.

Harrington reportedly approached the Lions earlier this offseason with an offer to re-negotiate the last three years of his contract and Detroit reportedly didn't take him up on his offer. Harrington has three years remaining on his five-year contract with base salaries of $4.95, $4.45 and $4.45 million. That led to speculation that Harrington didn't figure into Detroit's long range plans after all.

By not renegotiating the contract the thinking goes, that if Detroit did indeed decide to release him, the $4.95 million in base salary Harrington is scheduled to receive would come immediately off Detroit's salary cap. That would help offset the accelerated pro-rated portion remaining of his $10 million signing bonus (approximately $4 million). Detroit would not have to pay the $3 million roster bonus due Harrington on July 1st.

Detroit would actually experience a savings of about $950,000 by releasing him.

While Smith isn't expected to last beyond the fifth pick, might Detroit be planning to package draft picks or players - maybe even Harrington himself - for an opportunity to move up and select the senior quarterback in the first round? If that was the case, Jeff Garcia, who knows the Lions offense as well as anybody, would assume the starting position with Smith as the heir apparent.

Where would that leave Harrington? It would mean he would likely be released on or after June 1st to push the accelerated portion of his signing bonus onto next year's salary cap.

Another thought is that a trade could be in the works. Quarterback's always bring a premium in trades and if Smith should happen to be in range for Detroit to move up to acquire him, it could be the first move in a complex trade with other teams further down the draft board. That could bring Detroit extra picks and players.

It's not out of the ordinary for teams to be extra secretive when it comes to their draft plans. They do so to have the element of surprise on their side on draft day. Did the cat jump out of the bag on this one? Or is this much ado about nothing?

Stay tuned, this one likely isn't going to be unraveled until draft day.

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