Alex Smith has worn a San Francisco 49ers uniform for seven years now. 2011 marks the first time his team has finished above 18th in the league in points. And while he was called upon to manage games for most of the regular season, the playoffs provided a revelation.
Alex Smith, a former bust who has had to struggle his way to mediocrity, outgunned the mighty Drew Brees at the end of of a memorable division-round matchup with the New Orleans Saints. It showed a side of Smith that few had ever seen in the pros, or even guessed was possible. Consider it his Eli Manning moment. He stood uncharacteristically strong in the pocket and fearlessly launched passes deep down the seam and peppered the sidelines, connecting with fellow first-rounders Ted Ginn, Michael Crabtree and his secret weapon, Vernon Davis.
As revelatory as that game was, it also raised the stakes for Smith's play as a passer. For the first time since Steve Young was taking snaps, the 49ers won a playoff game on quarterback play. But the following week against the Giants, Smith found himself without Ginn, with no faith in Crabtree, and with Vernon Davis bracketed by double and triple coverage.
At that point, the difference between Alex and Eli, fellow #1 overall picks, was starkly apparent. Eli has weapons, plural. Smith has a weapon - Davis - and a couple of warm bodies. With little else to improve on this offseason, finding new targets in the passing game has to be priority one for San Francisco.
But how will they do it? Who will they target? That's the burning question for this offseason.
Option 1: The Marquee Free Agent
Multiple San Francisco beat reporters scoff at the idea that 49ers GM Trent Baalke will depart from his formula to chase after Vincent Jackson or restricted free agent Mike Wallace. With other prominent WRs like Dwayne Bowe expected to be taken off the market by their own team, the crop is getting smaller and the price tag is getting higher.
Baalke had plenty of cap room to work with last offseason, but preferred to use it on his own players, even letting some key contributors walk away in a very patient (almost lethargic) approach to free agency. While other teams pursued marquee players like Nnamdi Asomugha, Baalke went after unheralded Carlos Rogers on a one-year deal. Despite creating a hole at center, he encouraged the coaching staff to promote from within rather than chase after veteran Olin Kreutz.
The success and acclaim Baalke found likely cemented the value of the patient approach in his mind. Not only might he be averse to spending big dollars at the skill position, an objective look at his locker room might suggest that there are no openings left in the "diva" category. Crabtree fields a division's worth of that quality all on his lonesome.
Option 2: The Marquee Draft Pick
The ideal player for Baalke and the 49ers to target in this year's draft might be Baylor's Kendall Wright. Sure-handed and capable of playing inside and outside, Wright's acceleration and suddenness on short routes could make him a lethal weapon in Harbaugh's passing game, and he has the speed to become a home-run threat, complementing (and taking coverage away from) Vernon Davis.
The biggest question is whether Wright will still be available when the Niners come to the podium in Radio City, or whether the Niners can be tempted to trade up a few slots for him. If not, Baalke may take the patient route again and shift his attention in the first round to his offensive line, and look for a Victor Cruz type player later in the draft who can play bigger than his frame in the slot position. A less-heralded prospect like Illinois' AJ Jenkins could be found on Day 3 of the draft and be groomed to fit the bill.
Option 3: The Short-term Fix
This was the approach taken by Baalke last year, signing Braylon Edwards on a cheap one-year deal from the Jets. That move didn't pan out, but Edwards' disappearance hardly hurt the Niners offense. The Niners may go after a player whose star has similarly fallen, like the Rams' Mark Clayton, former Giant Steve Smith, or the black sheep of Baltimore, Lee Evans.
They also have two of their own to take care of in Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn, both of whom will be looking for new contracts. Of the two, Ginn has showed more, but both appear to buy into the team's offensive concept. (In other words, they don't bark too much if they don't get targets.)
A key in any decision like this is gauging the temperament of the fan base. The Niners took a huge leap forward last year, and have the chance to establish a dynastic reign in the weak NFC West. If Baalke goes the conservative route, will he alienate fans who expect him to do more? Possibly, but probably not.
At this point, the honeymoon is still on in San Francisco. For Baalke, Harbaugh and Smith, anything seems possible in 2012.
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