Alex Smith is likely to return to San Francisco as the starting quarterback after the lockout ends because second-round pick Colin Kaepernick is a project. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty)
John Crist: You've written about the potential dangers of coach Jim Harbaugh re-signing quarterback Alex Smith for a seventh season. The fan base seemingly wants to turn the page, but Smith knows the 49ers are his best (only?) starting option. So what happens if he returns and leads the team to the postseason?
Craig Massei: What would happen? The 49ers would wake up one day and joyfully celebrate that their wildest dream has finally come true. Knowing the 49ers fan base pretty well, I don't think anybody would have a problem with seeing the likable Smith finally succeed and lead the team out of the worst -- and longest -- stretch of ugly, hapless, losing seasons in franchise history. Many fans, not to mention educated media observers, are fed up with Smith and have seen enough of him to believe that, realistically, that is not going to happen.
But Smith certainly has the tools to make it happen. He always has. And he's still only 27 years old, having just celebrated that birthday in May. All the turmoil and adversity Smith has faced since becoming the No. 1-overall selection in the 2005 draft has made him tough and resilient, if nothing else. If you want a verdict as of today, I would say Smith is nothing better than an average backup quarterback at the NFL level. I suppose that could still change, but we've been waiting for it to change for several years now. Smith is getting his latest last shot with the 49ers this year only because of a very unique set of circumstances: the NFL lockout, a new coaching staff coming in, the team's QB cupboard being bare and the rookie/high draft pick/QB of the future not figuring to be anywhere near ready for major contribution in 2011.
But to get back to the essence of the question, if Smith does the things you mention above, he suddenly becomes the team's QB of the present again and gets a new two-year contract to see if he can sustain at that level. If he sustains at that level, Smith is in line for a long-term contract when he nears age 30, and Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco's second-round draft pick this year, continues to sit and wait for his shot behind Smith, like Steve Young did for several years behind Joe Montana -- not to suggest there is any comparison between Montana/Young and Smith/Kaepernick). But for anyone that really thinks that will actually happen with Smith, I'd have to tell them to wake up. Because they are dreaming.
JC: Take us back to the NFL Draft. Who was your favorite of the 49ers' picks? Least favorite? Did the team properly address its biggest needs and get good value with each selection? If you had been in the war room, is there anything you would have done differently?
CM: I like the Kaepernick pick best. The 49ers traded up early during the draft's second day to get him at the No. 36 pick overall, and it was an excellent move because Kaepernick was going to fly off the board at any minute. And he certainly wouldn't have been there at No. 45, San Francisco's original pick in the second round. Kaepernick was very good value there, because looking at film of him recently, I really think the kid has some potential to be something some day. He's big and fast, and he's got a rocket for an arm. So Harbaugh might be able to mold him into a winner. The 49ers drastically needed to get a legitimate QB prospect out of this draft, not some hit-or-miss prospect in the third or fourth round or a late-round flyer.
In connection with Kaepernick, I also believe the best pick the Niners made was NOT taking a QB prospect with the No. 7-overall selection in the draft, which certainly was a consideration for them when you look at their current situation at the position. The only QB in this draft that would have been worth that pick is Cam Newton, on potential alone, and of course he was gone. All the other top QB prospects were overrated, as far as going No. 7. Aldon Smith, the DE-to-turn-OLB the 49ers took at No. 7, is young and raw but also looks like he could fill a huge need and fit into what San Francisco is trying to do defensively.
The pick I didn't like much was South Carolina DB Chris Culliver in the third round at No. 80 overall. That was too high for a guy who spent most of his college days at safety but the 49ers now want to turn into one of their top four cornerbacks as soon as this year. Value was decent the rest of the way through, particularly fourth-round RB Kendall Hunter, who's getting rave reviews and looks like a steal at No. 115 overall. I don't see a potential starter in the final six picks behind Hunter, though Bruce Miller -- a decorated college defensive end who the 49ers will try to turn into a fullback -- looks like an intriguing prospect.
The one thing I would have done differently is select a big-bodied defensive lineman with potential to contribute right away, which would have required a third or fourth-round pick because that's a real need for the team with nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin headed toward free agency. The 49ers didn't get a defensive lineman with any of their 10 picks, since they're moving Smith to edge linebacker in their 3-4 defensive system.
JC: Usually we have free agency and then the draft, but this year -- eventually -- it's going to be the other way around. Now that the draft is in the rearview mirror, what position would you most like to see San Francisco address in free agency, and who could be a possible target?
CM: I think you'll see the 49ers be active initially in free agency, looking to get specific guys to fill specific needs in the early days, when all the front-line FAs get their paydays. Since there aren't many exciting FA prospects that are truly nose tackles -- those not over the hill, at least -- the 49ers, if they indeed lose Franklin, will probably move starting LDE Isaac Sopoaga to nose tackle, where the 330-pound bruiser will be just fine. That leaves them looking for a true 3-4 DE, a guy who could also play tackle in most defensive sets, and a player such as San Diego's Jacques Cesaire might be a target. He hasn't quite lived up to his potential, but he's experienced and still in his prime and holds the point of attack well. That's what the 49ers need. A bigger-ticket item such as Green Bay's Cullen Jenkins, if he's available, also would be a good get.
The 49ers almost surely will target a veteran CB/DB, particularly if vet Nate Clements doesn't agree to a significant pay cut and the Niners release him from his hugely bloated contract. San Francisco also will look for significant contributors at OLB and perhaps WR. And we haven't even mentioned QB here, which could be a direction the 49ers go if they want to bring in an experienced veteran to compete for the starting role this year. Too bad there aren't many attractive options out there to fit into that scenario.
JC: On the offensive side of the ball, Michael Crabtree was billed as one of the best wide receiver prospects to come along in quite some time. Strangely, he slipped in the draft a bit, and he hasn't really exploded yet. Is Year 3 going to be his coming-out party?
CM: I'd like to see it be some kind of party. How about just a position-warming party? The 49ers certainly can use some heat at wide receiver, arguably the team's worst position since Terrell Owens bolted from the SF scene after the 2003 season. The Niners were feeling good about WR entering last year with promising young starters in Crabtree and Josh Morgan, with newcomer Ted Ginn behind them at No. 3, but overall the team was mediocre at best at the position over the course of the season. And Crabtree flat out regressed from his promising rookie season. After the potential he showed in Year 1, you would have expected a leap from Crabs in Year 2. But he did little to establish himself as a legitimate No. 1 NFL wideout.
There's been a lot of talk out there that Year 3 will be his leap, as you say -- his coming-out party. The potential is certainly there, but it's difficult for me to see the eye-popping leap coming when Crabtree shows up in the San Francisco Bay Area a couple of weeks ago and then doesn't bother to show up for team workouts organized by Smith, a quarterback with whom Crabtree certainly needs to develop a better rapport. Crabtree needs to develop a better rapport with ANY San Francisco quarterback, present or future.
JC: Defensively, spending a fortune on Clements in free agency paid precious few dividends, and now he may not even be worth a starting job anymore at cornerback. Can he be a grossly-overpaid nickel back, or is it time to admit a big mistake and cut the cord?
CM: I should have known you would inquire about Clements before touching on his situation above. Clements still is owed almost $50 million over the final four seasons of the eight-year, $80 million contract he signed with the team as a free agent in 2007. That is money Clements will never see. Nor will he ever see the approximately $15 million he is due from that contract this season. Clements plays in a San Francisco uniform again only if he restructures his deal and takes a significant 2011 pay cut. Team management already has made that clear, and it should be made clear.
That said, Clements still has value to the team, either as a nickel back, as you suggest, or even a possible move to safety. But at age 31 and entering his 11th NFL season, Clements' days as an elite-level cornerback are long gone. If Clements truly expects his current contract to be honored, the 49ers are ready to cut the cord -- that is certainly what they should do.For all the latest news, notes and quotes on the 49ers, visit NinersDigest.com.
|John Crist is an NFL analyst for Scout.com. Craig Massei is the publisher of NinersDigest.com.|