This is the 17th in a series of scouting reports on key players who are expected to become free agents March 13, unless they are re-signed or franchised before then.
News: Coming off by far the best season of his seven-year career, all signs point toward Smith remaining the Niners' starting quarterback after signing a new contract in the not-too-distant future. Rumors of an imminent three-year deal for Smith worth between $8 million to $11 million per season have been floating around in league circles for some time now. Smith has expressed a strong interest in staying put under Jim Harbaugh, who was rewarded handsomely for the strong early vote of confidence he gave to a previously underachieving first-round draft pick who had far more detractors than admirers in the Bay Area. The Niners have a host of other quality free agents they would like to keep, but a new contract for Smith, who would love to avoid having to operate under his eighth different coordinator in eight years, is considered the team's top priority.
Notes: Smith, the first overall pick of the 2005 draft, had career highs in 2011 in completion percentage (61.3), passing yards (3,144) and passer rating (90.7, ranked ninth in the NFL) and threw a league-low five interceptions, despite being sacked more than any other starting QB in the league (44 times). He directed six fourth-quarter victories, the most noteworthy coming against the Saints in a divisional-playoff classic. In that game, Smith looked like Joe Montana in directing a pair of late fourth-quarter TD drives of 80 and 85 yards, throwing three TD passes with zero interceptions and pulling off a nifty 28-yard TD run on third down that caught the Saints totally flat-footed. Smith finished the regular season with 160 passing attempts without an interception, which ranks second all-time for the 49ers behind Steve Young's 183 consecutive attempts without getting picked off in 1993. Smith attempted another 68 passes in the Niners' two playoff games without an interception.
Positives: Only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers had fewer turnovers at the QB position in 2011 than Smith, who did a masterful job of playing mistake-free football. Before this season, Smith had a knack for making mistakes at the worst possible times, always determined to make something out of nothing. But last season, Smith did a tremendous job of almost never forcing the issue, taking sacks if the play was not there and almost always making sure to hold on to the ball. But when it became necessary to throw caution to the wind, as was the case against the Saints in the closing minutes, Smith came through with flying colors, making clutch plays with both his arm and his legs.
Negatives: Seven decidedly mediocre seasons before Smith's breakout campaign in 2011 and a subpar outing in the NFC title loss to the Giants (12-of-26 passing; 1-of-13 third-down conversions) can't help but generate some lingering doubts. Smith had all kinds of problems on third down most of the season and threw for more than 250 yards only three times during the regular season. Smith often overlooked open receivers — although the Niners' WR corps left a great deal to be desired — and he frequently held the ball too long, leading to unnecessary sacks. He also needs to continue working on delivering the ball quicker.
Risk factor: There is always the possibility that Smith could revert back to the wildly inconsistent form he displayed before this past season, but the prospect of actually working in the same scheme for more than one season would appear to bode well for his future, especially if the Niners can obtain a few more badly needed receiving weapons in the draft and free agency. Should Smith falter, promising second-year signalcaller Colin Kaepernick is waiting in the wings.