Who benefits: Only the 49ers know how likely they are to release Smith. Even if releasing Smith is a likely option in the absence of a trade, the 49ers want other teams to think otherwise. Any trade market for Smith would soften considerably if other teams knew or thought San Francisco would release Smith.
Flexibility: The 49ers are operating from a position of relative strength for now. They can afford to keep Smith on their roster until April 1 without consequence. The free-agent market will have settled by then. If Smith remains on the 49ers' roster at that point, San Francisco will have a better feel for potential trade opportunities.
Bonus looming: The 49ers must pay a $1 million bonus to Smith if Smith remains on the roster April 1. At that point, Smith's $7.5 million salary would become guaranteed. Trading Smith before April 1 would be ideal. The team could afford to keep Smith on the roster past that point, however. Smith and starter Colin Kaepernick are scheduled to count less than $10 million against the salary cap in 2013. That combined number is below average for the position. The number for Kaepernick is less than $1.4 million, less than half of what a veteran backup often makes.
What the 49ers need: San Francisco already has additional draft choices in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds this year. The team has a league-high 11 draft choices, with a chance to gain more through compensatory selections. How many more picks does the team need in 2013? It's a fair question for a team with relatively few openings on its roster. Taking a fifth- or sixth-round pick for Smith wouldn't seem to help the team much. A conditional choice in 2014 could make sense as part of any deal.
Doing right by Smith: General manager Trent Baalke told reporters covering the NFL scouting combine that he recently had dinner with Smith and Smith's wife to discuss the future. The 49ers appreciate what Smith has given them and how Smith has handled his demotion. Baalke said he hopes to find a solution that works best for everyone. Doing what's right for the 49ers has to be his top priority, of course.
Timetable: Teams cannot trade players before March 12, when free agency opens.