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Scratching the Seven Year Itch

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There is no arguing that if Doc Brown showed up at Candlestick Park right now offering the San Francisco 49ers a chance to go back in time to 2005, you better believe that Aaron Rodgers would be selected with the first pick. It would have been Alex Smith left sitting at the table watching as each team passed over him, symbolically slapping him in the face with each name call. It would be Smith who sat behind Brett Favre for three years watching the vet work his Lambeau Field magic. Imagine what a drastic swing of fortune could have transpired with just a changing of one general manager’s mind. But what’s done is done, and we have to look forward to the future. For Alex Smith, the future is now.

Watching Alex Smith over the past years, a few things stick out immediately. For starters, he simply doesn’t play like a No. 1 overall talent, period. For the majority of his playing time he’s looked as though he lacks elite accuracy and even average arm strength. The second thing that stands out immediately is that Alex Smith has had more head coaches than Mitt Romney has wives. Smith has been bounced between passing-oriented, run-first, and defensive-minded coaches, all with differing philosophies and play calling tendencies. That’s certainly not the ideal situation for grooming a young, maturing quarterback in today’s NFL. Perhaps this is a situation where one hand washes the other, meaning that Smith’s inabilities are the cause behind the coaching changes. Be that as it may, that is not the case in 2012. Coach Jim Harbaugh has cemented himself as the 49ers head coach for at least the next four seasons. For once in a long, long time, Alex Smith will enter camp with a successful, proven coach and consistent playbook. Could Smith’s experience and knowledge of the offense lead to an uptick in production?

Maybe the most noticeable factor seen during Smith’s career is that he hasn’t had much help on offense. Michael Crabtree has not turned into the Larry Fitzgerald, game-changing, elite wide receiver that the 49ers were looking for when they took him in the first round, 10th overall. Josh Morgan played well at times but is certainly not someone worth looking for as a primary target. Isaac Bruce was two years past what should have been retirement when San Francisco inked him. Braylon Edwards was a shell of himself in 2011, suffering through an injury ruined bounceback attempt with San Francisco. The days of spoiling quarterbacks with the likes of Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens were long gone by the time Smith held up his jersey on draft day.

The one elite option through the air for Smith has been his tight end Vernon Davis. While Davis is an elite option, he’s as up and down as the Superman coaster at Six Flags in regards to consistency. Are Davis’ inconsistencies due to Alex Smith’s inabilities or due to circumstance as well? Defenses have known for quite some time that Davis is the main passing threat and could key on him to force Smith to rely on less talented options. That won’t be the case this season.

The 49ers saw a large hole at the wide receiver position and addressed it in the 2012 offseason. Again, and again, and again. The first measure was to bring in a possession receiver that Smith could look to for first down conversions and moving the chains. The 49ers saw Mario Manningham as that kind of player and spent a pretty penny to sign him.

The next need was that of a true deep threat. Why not go out and get the best deep threat in the history of the league? San Francisco saw a grand opportunity offering little risk in an older, but still very capable Randy Moss. If a 35-year-old Moss can play anywhere near the level that the 33-year-old Moss did with the New England Patriots, he could blow up like the infamous Candlestick Park transformer. The final piece of the puzzle was to bring someone onto the roster that they can build up for the future. A guy who could save the team from suffering a wide receiver lull moving forward, avoiding a desert type of void like the one from Owens to now. A.J. Jenkins was deemed the future successor and thusly drafted in the first round to play that role. The 49ers saw the best way to address the wide receiver spot was with an extraordinary blend of past (Moss), present (Manningham), and future (Jenkins).

The question still remains – is it a lack of options over a prolonged period of time keeping Smith from achieving expectations, or is it simply that Smith isn’t as talented as advertised? Given all of these new additions, it seems as though the 49ers are convinced that he can live up to his pre-draft expectations. Truth be told, I believe that Smith is in for his best season yet given the newly acquired wide receiver options. While he shouldn’t be counted on as your No. 1 quarterback, he does offer a high ceiling based on what could be a huge draft day bargain.

Alex Smith will be allowed, and in some cases required, to throw more this year than he was last year, and to better options. He has one final year to show us what he truly is - bust, game manager, or victim of circumstance?

He’s also going to be extremely motivated, given that he is not pleased with the contract that he received this offseason. Alex Smith tested the waters a bit in free agency, flirting with the Miami Dolphins, and was surprised by how little interest teams showed him. Being motivated by the chance to earn a bigger contract and being in the best offensive situation of his career could lead to some surprising numbers.

My advice for Alex Smith, is to handle with care. Yes, I do believe that he’ll have his best year to-date, but that doesn’t mean that you want be counting on him for 16 games of the fantasy season. There are, however, some good opportunities to use him as your bye week filler for more talented options. Do a little homework and see who you’re target quarterback is and who the 49ers play that week. There are multiple chances for Smith to offer you a true No. 1 option for a bye week and maybe even become an above-average injury replacement. Based on his division, there should be several opportunities where you could turn to Smith in the event your stud goes down unexpectedly. Take a quick look – you may find Alex Smith interest if you interest in some of these other guys.

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