Alex Smith ... Release or Trade? If Trade ... For What? To Whom?


Fooch's Note: Awesome work on this FanPost. It's a hotly-debated topic and this is a great example of really putting in the work to come up with good content.

The Title questions have become a hot topic here on Niners Nation. Some seem to think that no other team will trade for Alex because they can simply wait until he's released since the Niners can't afford to pay Alex's compensation package to a backup QB. Or, after all that Alex has been through with the Niners, others think that they owe it to him to just let him go to make his own deal with another team. Still others think that the Niners should try to trade Alex and "get something", but what? Others seem to think that Alex isn't worth more than maybe a third- or fourth-round draft pick. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have done any real homework to try to solve this "puzzle".

I have done the homework and would like to discuss my findings. But first, I'd like to clarify a couple of things:

1. Regardless of what you may think, the Niners are first and foremost a BUSINESS. They are in business to make money and maximize the return on the owner's investment.

2. It is Trent Baalke's job to maximize the return that the Niners can get on the "sale" (i.e., trade or release) of any asset (i.e., players and/or draft choices).

3. The laws of supply and demand apply to NFL teams just as they do to any other business transaction.

Accordingly, let's address the questions asked in the article title just as we would if we were running any other business. I''ll break the discussion down into four parts:

1. Is there any demand for a young starting QB in the marketplace?

2. What alternative supply sources are available to satisfy that demand?

3. If the Niners should try to trade Alex, what level of compensation should they expect in return in a trade?

4. Which teams would be the most desireable trade partners, and why?


Is there demand for a yound, experienced, starting QB in the NFL? Is the Pope Catholic? The obvious answer to the question is an emphatic YES ... but to varying degrees:

Must Make a Change (These teams don't have ANY decent starting QBs on their rosters) --

Should Make a Change (These teams won't compete effectively with their current starting QBs) --

  • Buffalo Bills (given HC and OC changes)
  • Cleveland Browns (given HC and OC changes)
  • Oakland Raiders (Palmer's injury-recovery progress? Neither Leinart or Pryor is the answer; fresh start?)
  • Philadelphia Eagles (given complete scheme/HC/OC changes; Kelly's assessment of the aging Vick and appropriateness of Folk for new scheme?)

Should Buy Time to Develop Young QB Talent on Their Rosters --

  • Jacksonville Jaguars (with Gabbert, can make a case that the Jags should really be in the above group)
  • Minnesota Vikings (Ponder could learn a lot faster if he had a decent veteran QB to learn from)
  • Tennessee Titans (Locker needs time to develop and Hasselbeck may have nothing left as a starter; remember that they we competing in the Payton Manning sweepstakes to serve that role)

Wild Cards -- May Want to Upgrade to Reach the "Promised Land" --

  • Dallas Cowboys (just haven't gotten it done with the now aging Romo)
  • Houston Texans (even at high cost and cap impact, Schaub may be the weak link on the roster; is their window closing?)
  • San Diego Chargers (they're close to start-over mode; should that include replacing the aging Rivers?)
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers (apparently Schiano isn't as happy with Freeman as we might think)


There are three alternatives for satisfying the need for a starting QB ... draft one, sign a free agent, or trade for one.

This Year's Draft Class

In a word ... WEAK! Most certainly one of the weakest in the last five years. Will some QB prospects be taken in the first round? Yes. Would any of this year's group be a first-rounder in a more typical QB draft class? Probably not. But, as has always been true in the NFL, huge need makes hope spring eternal ... take a flyer ... just maybe we'll get super lucky and find the next Russell Wilson; but probably not ... guys like Luck, Griffin and Wilson are rare.

I think that Rob Rang (NFLDraftScout) is one of the better judges of QB talent year in and year out. Here is his ranking (within the entire class of prospects) of this year's top of the QB crop, together with some comments:

14. Geno Smith (West Virginia) -- "... did not play at the level of top-ranked QBs in recent years."

19. Matt Barkley (USC) -- "Scouts value Barkley's leadership, poise and accuracy on the move, but there are plenty who scoff at giving him a first-round grade."

30. Mike Glennon (North Carolina State) -- "Difficult to find a prospect who is more inconsistent; ..."

43. Tyler Wilson (Arkansas) -- "... history of head injuries could scare off teams."

50. Ryan Nassib (Syracuse) -- "... could possibly be this year's Andy Dalton."

61. Tyler Bray (Tennessee)

78. Landry Jones (Oklahoma)

103. EJ Manual (Florida State)

142. Zac Dysert (Miami of Ohio)

How good could any GM possibly feel about betting his job on the probable short-term success of any of these guys?

Available Free Agent Quarterbacks

If you felt a little queasy about the draft prospects, how about selecting from this group of free agent QBs? Listed alphabetically:

Derek Anderson (Carolina)

Jason Campbell (Chicago)

David Carr (New York Giants)

Chase Daniel (New Orleans)

Joe Flacco (Baltimore)

Rex Grossman (Washington)

Tarvaris Jackson (Buffalo)

Matt Leinart (Oakland)

Matt Moore (Miami)

Drew Stanton (Indianapolis)

Seneca Wallace (FA)

This is a partial listing of some of the BEST of the FA QBs available in 2013. One starter in the whole bunch ... and he (Flacco) is not really available ... he and his agent have just been trying to get as much as they can when he re-signs with the Ravens. Pretty sad list!

Potential Trade Candidates

Matt Flynn (Seattle)

Alex Smith (San Francisco)

Tim Tebow (New York Jets)

Well ... of the three, that would seem to be a no-brainer!


So, given the lists above, it would seem pretty clear that Alex ranks relatively high, if not at the top of the pile, of available QBs ... especially if a team has many of the other pieces in place to be competitive.

The big question ... what is he worth? It seems that many NN contributors have significantly varying ideas concerning the "right answer" to that question. But it also seems pretty clear that those ideas are taken out of thin air with no basis in fact ... they're simply wild guesses. You can't run a business based upon wild guesses ... you need to do some homework and deal with facts. So, let's do just that.

First, because QB trades are somewhat infrequent and demand varies over time, many of us simply try to remember who got what in the last such trade and extrapolate that that must be "the market" for all QBs all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have analyzed all of the important (i.e., excludes extraneous backup acquisitions from practice squads, etc.) QB trades for draft picks since 2000. Here's what I found out:

There are three distinct types of QB trades: (1) trades for experienced starting QBs, (2) trades for backup QBs with the hope that they can become immediate starters, and (3) trades for 30+ year old veterans to serve simply as backups for a younger starter. Since it's the first group (1) that we're really interested in, let's work backwards.

Group 3 -- Trade Compensation For Aging Backups (former starters traded after becoming a backup)

Most notable would be Mark Brunell (by Jacksonville) and Steve McNair (by Tennessee) -- both were in their mid-30s and were traded for 3rd round draft picks. I looked at a number of others and all went for either a 3rd round pick or, in some cases, a 4th plus a 5th round pick.

Group 2 --Trade Compensation For Existing Backups / Starter Wantabes

Here, let's focus on those trades we're probably most familiar with and see what the actual compensation was.

March 2007 -- Matt Schaub: Drafted by Atlanta in the 3rd round; started 2 games in three years as a backup; traded to Houston. Compensation: (a) TWO 2nd round draft picks, and (b) swapped first round picks, thus seller Altanta moving up two spots.

March 2009 -- Matt Cassel: Mid-round draft pick by New England; career backup to Brady; started 15 games when Brady injured; traded to Kansas City. Compensation: 2nd round draft pick.

March 2010 -- Charlie Whitehurst: Mid-round draft pick by San Diego; four seasons as their #3 QB; started two games due to injuries; traded to Seattle. Compensation: (a) 3rd round draft pick, and (b) swapped 2nd round draft picks, thus seller San Diego moving up 20 spots.

July 2011 -- Kevin Kolb: Drafted by Philadelphia in the 2nd round; four seasons as backup to McNabb; started seven games in four years due to injury; 27 years old when traded to Arizona. Compensation: (a) Pro-Bowl CB Rodgers-Cromartie, and (b) 2nd round draft pick.

Thus, for very limited experience and really unknown sustainable performance, the "average compensation" for a wantabe would seem to be at least one 2nd round pick up to a starting player plus a 2nd round pick.

Group 1 -- Trade Compensation For An Experienced Starting QB

Finally, this is the group that we're really interested in to determine Alex's potential trade compensation value. As I said before, inasmuch as these types of trades are infrequent, we need to look back pretty far in time to evaluate a fair sampling of trades.

April 2001 -- Trent Green: Originally drafted by San Diego in 1993, Green spent two years there as a backup, then moved to Washington for four years, first as a backup and then as the starter. Beginning a rebuild, Washington decided to start fresh at QB and traded Green (compensation unknown) to St. Louis, where he was their full-time starter. He was injured in mid-season and replaced by indoor-football-graduate Kurt Warner who miraculously took St. Louis to the Super Bowl. The following Spring St. Louis decided to stick with Warner over the fully-recovered Green; St. Louis then traded the 29-year-old Green to Kansas City where he started for most of the next 5 years. Compensation: (a) 1st round draft pick, and (b) 5th round draft pick.

April 2002 -- Drew Bledsoe: Drafted by New England in the 1st round, Bledsoe was a long-time starter and 3-time Pro Bowler when he was seriously injured, put on IR, and replaced by a then unknown Tom Brady. Bledsoe was fully recovered by next Spring but Brady was entrenched; thus, New England traded the 30-year-old Bledsoe to Buffalo where he became their immediate starter. Compensation: 1st round draft pick.

April 2009 -- Jay Cutler: Drafted by Denver in the 1st round (by Shanahan) and immediately became their starting QB. When McDaniel took over as Denver's HC the sparks flew and McDaniel wanted Cutler gone. Thus, Denver traded the 25-year-old Cutler to Chicago. Compensation: (a) Chicago's starting QB Kyle Orton (also a 1st rounder), (b) a 1st round draft pick, and (c) a 3rd round draft pick in exchange for Denver's 5th round draft pick.

April 2010 -- Donavan McNabb: Drafted by Philadelphia in the 2nd round, McNabb was a long-time starter with playoff experience. When Philadelphia acquired Michael Vick they decided to trade McNabb. Thus, Philadelphia traded the 33-year-old McNabb to Washington. Compensation: (a) a 2nd round draft pick, and (b) a 4th round draft pick.

Actually, this trade could be consider a "Group 3" type trade above except for the fact that Washington wanted McNabb as a temporary starter to replace the ineffective Rex Grossman until they could draft a QB; as we all know, that didn't work out well in the short term and the Redskins released McNabb.

October 2011 -- Carson Palmer: Drafted by Cincinnati in the 1st round and immediately became their starting QB which continued for the next decade. Unhappy with playing for a perpetual losing team and with management's unwillness to trade him, Palmer decided to "retire." Finally deciding that it was better to get something for Palmer rather than nothing, Cincinnati traded the 32-year-old Palmer to Oakland. Compensation: (a) a 1st round draft pick, and (b) a 2nd round draft pick which could convert to another 1st round pick based upon Palmer's playing time as Oakland's starter.

So ... where does all this leave us with respect to Alex Smith's compensation value in a trade? Glad you asked. With respect to career pass completion stats and QB rating, Smith's record is comparable to that of McNabb and Palmer and far superior to both Green and Bledsoe; and, Smith's stats are far superior to all of them in the last two years before they were traded. Except for Cutler, Smith is at least two years younger than any of the others when traded. Further, Smith would be the first QB in history who led the NFL in completion percentage and QB rating and was ranked #3 passer in the league at the time he was traded. At 19-5-1, he would have by far the best recent record of any QB ever traded.

The conclusion would seem obvious ... Alex Smith is easily worth a least one 1st round draft pick in trade in ANY market. When you consider the strong current demand for starting QBs and the very weak alternatives available, he's probably worth closer to a Cutler-type value package.

So ... will everybody buy that conclusion? Of course not ... there are always doubters. Some will say "but why would a team trade for Smith when they can simply wait and sign him when the Niners release him, so that it doesn't cost them any compensation to the Niners?" Answer: There is NO CHANCE that Baalke will just release Alex Smith, even if Alex were to make such a request. Why? Very simple ... this is a business, not a country club. Businesses DO NOT just give away valuable assets for nothing. It is Baalke's job to maximize the return to the Niners for any asset "sold or retired."

"But the Niners have a salary cap problem ... they can't afford to pay a backup QB that kind of money. They're best off to release him before even incurring the $1 million hit, much less his full salary." Response: First, the Niners don't have a salary cap problem now ... they don't have to meet the top-51-man salary limit until March 12th, which happens to also be the start of the trading period in the new NFL year. The Niners will make many free agent retention decisions between now and then to increase their already under-the-limit status. Second, if you consider the amount of compensation allocated to the QB position (INCLUDING Alex's contract) relative to other teams, the Niners are on the LOW side ... Alex (though not the starter) is paid at a below-average starter level , and both Kaep and Tolzien are super cheap. In short, Alex's contract does not become a problem until Kaep gets his next contract ... which won't be in the immediate future.

"Does that mean that the Niners will simply keep Alex as the backup?" Absolutely not! Make no mistake, Alex WILL BE TRADED ... but not necessarily before April 1st. From the standpoint of continuing to build the team, getting a first-round draft pick in this year's draft for an "Alex Smith trade package" (explained later) would be ideal; thus, if the trade can be consummated before April 25th, great. If after that, then we need a sweeter compensation package because of the delay to the 2014 draft.

"Looking at the situation from the point of view of teams wanting to acquire Alex, do they have any incentive to want to get a deal done as soon as possible, rather than waiting for the possibility that Alex might be released and become a free agent?" Absolutely. Three reasons come quickly to mind. (1) They're not negotiating in an open market so that there is the possibility of making a preemptive offer to the Niners and excluding other possible buyers; (2) Alex's existing contract is below-average for a starting QB ... take advantage of that fact rather than having to negotiate a new contract with a free agent; (3) Alex is likely to be much more expensive to sign as a free agent in an open, competitive market than being acquired in the less-competitive trade market.

"How about the idea of letting Alex and his agent talk with prospective trade partners so that he can find a team that he'd like to play for but still allow the Niners to get their trade compensation?" If I'm Trent Baalke I'm fine with that but with some specific guidelines: (1) we will not trade you to another NFC West team under any circumstances; (2) we would prefer a trade to an AFC team; (3) we will only agree to a trade to selected NFC teams ... meaning NOT to a team who is likely to be a significant playoff contender in the short term. We will approve or deny the trade strictly on the basis of the value of the compensation package offered in return. Remember, Alex is the Niners' asset who is under contract ... Baalke is driving this bus.


Ideally, an AFC team selecting between the 11th and 15th pick in the draft. Why? We don't need a top-10 pick to select a good prospect to satisfy our biggest need (defensive lineman) and don't want one of those compensation packages to deal with. On the other hand, the best defensive linemen will be gone within the top 20 picks.

Unfortunately, QB is not the biggest need of any AFC teams selecting between 10th and 15th ... Tennessee, San Diego or Miami. If we go below 15 we risk the possibility of not getting "our guy." So, we have to reverse course and look to the top-10 whether we like it or not. Let's avoid the top-5 if possible. That leaves three AFC teams between Pick #6 and Pick #9 ... Cleveland, Buffalo and the New York Jets. (Just a parenthetical here: If we should make a trade with a top-10 team I would expect to trade that pick down into the teens and pick up an additional 2nd round pick. Why would another team want to do that? At #9 there is a good chance that OT Eric Fisher (Central Michigan) will still be on the board ... San Diego will take him at #11 UNLESS somebody else (Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Dallas, N.Y. Giants, Chicago) wants to trade up to get him.) Now, on with the analysis ...

Cleveland (Pick #6) is a possibility but their biggest needs are on defense and their offensive needs are interior linemen and wide receiver. Possible, but not likely.

Buffalo (Pick #8) needs a QB and wide receiver on offense and linebackers on defense. No question that Alex would be an upgrade over Fitzpatrick and we could put together a package that would include an OLB. However, with Doug Marrone (former Syracuse U. head coach) as their new head coach, I have the feeling that he probably wants to address defense in the first round and then select his former Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib in the second or lower round, stick with Fitzpatrick until Nassib is ready, then make the QB switch. Never say never, but highly unlikely.

That leaves the New York Jets (Pick #9) as the target. They have massive problems ... NO real QB, their best player on IR with a very serious injury, many other positional needs, and they are now OVER the salary cap by a whopping $19.4 million. Honestly, with a new GM, I don't think that they have any choice but to dump a lot of big salaries and make substantial roster changes. Their biggest draft needs are QB and offensive linemen (ROT and OG) on offense; on defense they will be looking for an outside linebacker and both FS and SS.

Thus, if I'm Trent Baalke, I propose the following offer to the New York Jets:

QB Alex Smith and OLB Parys Haralson in exchange for the Jets #9 pick in the first round of April's draft. If they balk, I sweeten the deal by also including S Trent Robinson in the trade package (expecting that we will draft a better safety in this year's draft). For them: Two low-cost starters and a low-cost backup safety. For us: The #9 draft pick which we can trade down ... ending up with two first-round draft picks and two second-round draft picks.

Wonderful ... but what happens if the Jets still say "no"? Not to worry ... there is still Kansas City, Jacksonville, Oakland, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Buffalo, Tennessee and Minnesota on the QB-needy list. The trade package would no doubt look different, but, bottom line, ALEX SMITH WILL BE TRADED BY THE NINERS BETWEEN MARCH 12TH (first day of the new NFL year) AND APRIL 1ST (the date that Alex's $1 million roster bonus is due). IN BAALKE WE TRUST!

I have no doubt that there are some of you that want to argue with my conclusions. Have at it ...

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Niners Nation's writers or editors.