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The maturation of Alex Smith

As the 49ers have made moves to bolster the wide receiver corp and the defense, a common theme has come up throughout the offseason, can Alex Smith continue to improve his game and lead this team to the playoffs?  Some of the naysayers are looking to cut down on some of the hype.  While I agree that we shouldn't get too over the top excited, there's nothing wrong with having some optimism for the upcoming season.

Nonetheless, this is an important season in the development of Alex Smith.  The team bolstered the receiving corp, giving Smith a whole host of weapons.  While Norv Turner is gone, the team promoted Smith's QB coach from the last 2 seasons, which should allow for some continuity.  Alex Smith does not need to be a spectacular quarterback or even a very good one in my honest opinion.  He just needs to develop some consistency over the course of the season and not make many mistakes, primarily by boosting that TD/INT ratio.

Football Outsiders uses Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement (DPAR) as their primary statistic for measuring a quarterbacks contribution and ranks them accordingly.  DPAR represents, "the total number of points scored due to plays where this QB passed or carried the ball, compared to a replacement-level QB in the same game situations."

According to FO's 2005 rankings, Alex Smith was dead last in DPAR, contributing a stunning -66.5 points to the 49ers cause, one of many reasons they finished 4-12.  The next closest was Kyle Orton at -38.9, while Peyton Manning led all QBs at 112.5.

In 2006, the statistical improvement seen in completion percentage and other categories can be seen in his DPAR of 1.5, good for 35th among all QBs with a minimum of 100 passes, 26th among those with at least 300.  The two worst QBs in the league, Andrew Walter and Bruce Gradkowski, were at -30.6 and -30.4 respectively.  The best QB, again Peyton Manning, rocketed to 175.0, with the next best being Marc Bulger at 108.8.

So what do these numbers mean?  Well, Alex Smith certainly has some work to do, but clearly he took a big step forward last year.  I mentioned earlier that Alex Smith doesn't need to be great for this team to make the playoffs, or even to make a little noise in January.  Here are the DPARs of the various NFC playoff QBs:

  1. Drew Brees - 106.0
  2. Donovan McNabb - 57.0/Jeff Garcia - 18
  3. Tony Romo - 51.3
  4. Eli Manning - 28.0
  5. Matt Hasselbeck - 7.3
  6. Rex Grossman - 4.1

There are some great talents there, and obviously it would be nice to see Smith climb to the upper echelon of QBs.  However, the combination of a new and improved defense, along with a very good running game should allow Smith to, at the very least, move into double digits in DPAR.  If Smith can lower his interception totals and bring some consistency week in and week out, this team is clearly a playoff team.  While the hype machine is leading to bigger and bigger expectations, I think Alex Smith is a cool enough customer to manage the expectations on his end and take care of business.  I'll have my individual predictions later this summer, but suffice to say, I think Smith takes a miniature leap from below average/average QB to solid, consistent QB and brings the team along with him.