An $8.5 million question: Will San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith be released or traded?

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) watches from the sidelines during first quarter of their game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) started the game instead of Smith. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

After suffering a concussion, Alex Smith was benched by coach Jim Harbaugh, giving dynamic second-year passer Colin Kaepernick a chance at the position full-time. Smith was playing extremely well at the time, however, and he can absolutely help out any number of teams come this time next season.

Thus, while the Niners may trade the man who has been relegated to the title of ‘pricey backup’, Smith may gamble on asking for his outright release.

The timeline of Alex Smith’s tenure with the San Francisco 49ers is one that has been extremely well-chronicled — not to mention well-publicized. After leading Utah to a BCS bowl game as an intellectual signal-caller who could make moves with both his arm and his legs, the Niners drafted the Utes’ star first-overall in the 2005 NFL Draft.

After that, Smith was put in a tough spot under a very tough head coach on a very bad team. Smith waffled in the wind under the likes of first Mike Nolan and then Mike Singletary. Both were extremely defensively-orientated head men, and neither understood how a man with the talent of Smith could struggle. Thus, when he did, there was no help forthcoming.

Enter Mr. Harbaugh, who was coming off of a fantastic coaching job in which he helped Andrew Luck develop into an All-American at Stanford. A former NFL quarterback himself, Harbaugh skipped over from Palo Alto to San Francisco, waved his magic wand, and turned Smith into a top 10 signal caller.

However, again, Smith suffered a concussion, and he would not see the field again. Had Kaepernick not led the 49ers to the cusp of a world championship as the team prepares for Super Bowl XLVII, perhaps the situation would be different.

Perhaps there would not be a huge tangent to Smith’s San Francisco timeline.

However, Kaepernick has led the Niners to a dominant win over Green Bay and a last-gasp thriller over Atlanta to earn a title game tilt against the legendary Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens. Kaepernick has done with the franchise what no other quarterback has been able to do since Steve Young 18 years ago.

And that includes Smith.

Now, as the Super Bowl approaches, both Smith and the San Francisco front office must asses their options. If Smith is still on the team come April 1, he will be owed $8.5 million, according to NBC Sports.

Keeping someone on the sidelines for that much money is not generally the prerogative for anyone, even if that team just went to the Super Bowl. The Niners are almost guaranteed to try to trade the former top draft pick. However, the salary is prohibitive for most of the teams out there who might potentially be in the market for the veteran who has proven he can win.

For example, the Arizona Cardinals have a need at the position, but still owe Kevin Kolb $7 million, making Smith unaffordable. That is just one of the several teams that would love to have Smith but already may have a guy on their payroll.

Thus, Smith has reportedly asked for his outright release following the big game.

The request is a gamble for the quarterback, but it is not likely to be honored by the franchise, at least not right away. The team’s front office does not simply want to allow a starting-caliber quarterback to walk out of the front door. If San Francisco can get something in return for Smith in a trade, obviously the team is going to go that route first.

If the team cannot find any takers because of Smith’s salary, they then may honor the quarterback’s request. Smith, unfortunately, may not be able to find a team to sign him for the $8.5 million he is owed.

However, he may be able to find a team willing to sign him to a big-time, multi-year contract. Should that prove to be the case, both parties may wind up as winners.

The 49ers will have a young superstar on their hands who has already taken them to a Super Bowl, while Smith will have the opportunity to start anew with a welcoming franchise, as well as all the motivation in the world to take his new team to the promised land.

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