Minnesota Vikings fans should be looking very closely at the quarterback controversy in San Francisco.
It seems all but certain now that head coach Jim Harbaugh's choice for the future is second-year player Colin Kaepernick. Incumbent Alex Smith's concussion gave Harbaugh the opportunity to start Kaepernick, who's 2-0 in two starts.
What does this mean for longtime 49er and #1 overall pick Alex Smith? He signed a three-year contract earlier this season, but if the 49ers like Kaepernick going forward, it seems unlikely that they would want to keep Smith around, both with his salary and with his likely rancor at being passed over while not doing anything wrong on the football field. This being the NFL, it's tough to tell exactly how much money is guaranteed, but here's what I found on Smith's contract:
Signed a three-year, $24 million contract. The deal contains $9 million guaranteed -- an initial roster bonus of $3 million, all of Smith's 2012 base salary, and $1 million of his 2013 salary. Another $9 million is available through incentives, though $5.25 million of them are "unlikely to be earned." An annual $250,000 workout bonus is available. 2012: $5 million, 2013: $7.5 million (+ $1 million roster bonus due in March), 2014: $7.5 million, 2015: Free Agent
So it looks as if Smith would be set to earn $16 million in 2013-14, though it also says only $9 million – Smith's 2012 salary of $5 million, a roster bonus of $3 million, and $1 million of his 2013 salary – is guaranteed. Even at a full $16 million over two years, that's not bad for a starting-caliber quarterback, and depending on the exact wording of his contract, Smith might come cheaper.
And that could be just what the Minnesota Vikings need.
Now, I'm not going to try and sell Vikings fans on the “all we need is a quarterback” bandwagon that's led to us trotting out quick fixes for years, like Brad Johnson, Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, and the like. But effective quarterbacking is still important, and it's hard to believe at this point that Christian Ponder is the answer. At the very least, the Vikings need a capable alternative in 2013. Joe Webb is unlikely, the team isn't likely to draft high enough (and this year's QB class is considered rather weak), and there isn't expected to be a significant free agent available. Smith might be the most capable QB available, especially if Kaepernick secures the starting job.
But is he worth it? Smith was a bad QB for a while and is still considered a bust as a #1 overall pick, especially with Aaron Rodgers being drafted later in the first round in 2005. But he's re-invented himself over the last two years as a solid QB who doesn't make mistakes, which is exactly what a team with a strong running game and defense, like the 49ers, needs.
Over the last two years, on 662 pass attempts – a little more than one season for most guys, but a season and a half for the run-focused 49ers – Smith has 30 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions and a 95.1 passer rating. And I don't think it's a complete fluke; even in 2009-10, he had 32 TDs and 22 picks, which isn't exceptional but is a far cry from his previous seasons.
The one blemish on his stats is his sack rate, which has ballooned from 7.8% from 2005-10 to 9.3% in 2011-12. But maybe that comes with throwing fewer interceptions. Maybe Smith is taking more sacks instead of throwing the ball up for grabs and having it get picked off. Neither is great, but I'd rather take the sacks.
Finally, unlike most of our short-term QB fixes in the past, Smith is still young. He'll turn 29 next May and could theoretically have a lot of football left in him. The 49ers realize this, of course, and will demand high trade value for him, but I think he'd be at least worth a second-round pick.
Would Smith's style fit with the Vikings? The team's running game is comparable to/better than the 49ers', though the 49ers clearly have the better defense. And maybe Jim Harbaugh is just a really good coach, and Smith wouldn't do as well with another guy calling the shots.
But he's likely to be the best quarterback available in 2013, and the Vikings can't go into next season with Christian Ponder and expect success. Something has to be done, and this might be it.