The 49ers are at a crossroads with Alex Smith. They can thank him for being a good teammate -- despite replacing him as the starter -- and release him before free agency on March 12, or they can trade him to an NFL team in desperate need of a starting quarterback.
According to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, Smith is expected to request his release from the 49ers before free agency begins in just over two weeks. It would give Smith and several needy NFL teams the opportunity for the full amount of bargaining time this offseason.
However, the 49ers do not have to adhere to Smith’s request, nor should they. Smith is a valuable commodity in the NFL right now, and the 49ers intend to take full advantage of that even if they look like a heartless franchise because of it.
As CSN Bay Area’s Ray Ratto writes, Smith may get the short end of the stick for the second time this season.
“So what do the 49ers actually owe him? Much. What are they compelled to do for him? Not much. And in the NFL, kindness is typically just a prettied-up obligation.”
This has never been more apparent than with head coach Jim Harbaugh, who stood by Smith’s side since he arrived in San Francisco, only to replace him with Colin Kaepernick once given the smallest window of opportunity.
When the 49ers’ situation with Smith really gets down to it, the NFC Champions really do not have many options here. Smith will be owed a $7.5 million bonus on April 1, and the 49ers are not expected to pay him that amount of money, especially for a back-up quarterback they have relatively no need for. NFL teams understand this and surely will anticipate Smith being at the top of the trade block as soon as the Super Bowl ends.
However, trading Smith is another whole different challenge for the 49ers.
Again, NFL teams know the 49ers will need to get rid of Smith by April 1, which leaves free agency as the presumed gateway to acquiring Smith. The only way Smith gets traded at this point is if a team in desperate need of a starting quarterback feels they cannot compete with the big money in free agency. In that case, the 49ers will likely be able to get a first to third round draft pick in return for Smith, setting them up for an even brighter future than they already have.
A trade is obviously the preferred route for the 49ers in the dispensing of Smith, but that may be easier said than done. The only way the 49ers will honor his free agency request is if they cannot find a trade partner before April 1, watching Smith’s preferred release date of March 12 go by.
Smith has done everything asked of him this season, despite having his starting job stripped of him after sustaining a concussion. The 49ers are now in the Super Bowl with Colin Kaepernick, and Smith at least seems like he cannot be happier for his teammates. At the same time, Smith’s time under center in San Francisco may have set back the 49ers’ franchise back several years, only to be resurrected by Trent Baalke, Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff.
The 49ers do not owe Smith the right to be released on his own terms, and certainly will not harm the state of the franchise by doing so.