Commentary

Alex Smith has weapons, but little value

Updated: August 7, 2010, 11:15 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

32 Questions

If Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree are so valuable, why isn't Alex Smith?

The San Francisco 49ers are Las Vegas' favorite to win the NFC West in 2010. They have burgeoning stars on both sides of the ball. Their offense produced two must-start players in 2009, and according to preseason fantasy rankings might do better than that this year. And they attempted 30-plus passes in eight of their final 10 games last year.

So why doesn't anyone love Alex Smith?

Let me be clear: I don't love Smith. I have great worries about his ability to lead a team to the playoffs. But given how highly I've ranked Gore, Davis and Crabtree, it's a bit odd that I'm so dubious about the man tasked with getting them the ball. Gore is my No. 6 fantasy running back at the moment, Davis is No. 3 at tight end and Crabtree is No. 20 among wide receivers. Accordingly, all three guys are -- in my view, anyway -- every-week fantasy starters. And yet Smith lands at No. 20 on my fantasy quarterback list, well outside starting consideration and technically just barely inside fantasy backup material. It's a little weird.

However, it's not without precedent. In '09, Matt Ryan finished 19th among quarterbacks, yet his key offensive weapons were quite valuable: Roddy White finished seventh among receivers, Tony Gonzalez was fifth among tight ends and if you combined Michael Turner's and Jason Snelling's seasons (Snelling started after Turner hurt his ankle), you'd have had the No. 4 running back. Heck, Smith himself was just the 21st-best fantasy signal-caller last year (albeit in only 11 games), but that didn't stop Gore and Davis from putting up big seasons.

Alex Smith
AP Photo/Jeff ChiuAlex Smith is looking to improve upon his career-high 18 touchdown passes from last season.
How does this happen? Well, it's become fashionable to blame Smith's problems on formation issues. At the University of Utah, he passed out of a spread attack, so it was popular this past season to claim Smith performed much better when the 49ers began to favor a shotgun-based attack in November. But the numbers don't bear this out. Smith's overall quarterback rating -- a flawed stat, to be sure, but not a terrible indicator of whether a QB has dramatically increased or decreased his efficiency -- last year was 81.5. According to ESPN Stats & Information, his passer rating on plays run from the shotgun formation only was 79.8. Sorry, this isn't entirely a case of a guy being super-uncomfortable under center, and at ease only when he can see the defense from the snap.

No, I believe Smith's problems come down to two issues: risk-taking and accuracy. He isn't particularly good at either. Smith was the worst NFC quarterback -- and third-worst in the NFL (behind only JaMarcus Russell and Matt Cassel) -- in first downs per attempt last year. He was the worst NFC quarterback -- and second-worst in the NFL (behind only Ryan Fitzpatrick) -- in completion percentage on third down and long (eight-plus yards). And finally he was the worst NFC quarterback in percentage of third downs converted when attempting a pass. And the truth is, none of these stats is surprising when you watched Smith play this past season. He's got a big-enough arm, yet when you ask him to stick the eight-yard out on the sidelines to convert a big play, he doesn't do it. He misses high or low -- or else he'll check down when it's obvious he shouldn't. Yes, Smith exceeded a 60 percent completion season for the first time last year, which finally put him (barely, 60.5 percent) above the quarterback's Mendoza line. But one gets the sense that he still doesn't quite trust himself.

Smith is going to put up some numbers. He started 11 games in 2009 and amassed 2,350 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 picks, a pace that would've put him at 3,418/26/18 in 16 full games. That stat line would've roughly made him fantasy's 16th-best QB. That yardage and touchdown total is plenty for players like Davis and Crabtree (and, to a lesser extent, someone like Josh Morgan) to be productive fantasy players. But because I have questions about whether Smith has the skills necessary to extend drives and make the tight throws that put offenses over the top into elite territory, I think the above projected stat line is about Smith's ceiling. In our Draft Kit projections, I assumed he'd miss perhaps one game due to injury, and gave him a stat line that looks more like this: 3,098 yards, 20 TDs, 14 INTs. That's still enough production to help the Niners' best offensive players be productive for their fantasy teams. But it's not enough to make Smith an above-average fantasy asset. That's what he is: average. This will be one of those rare -- but not impossible -- cases where the quarterback is good enough to help his teammates but probably not good enough to truly help himself.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/thewriterboy.