If you take your eye off the ball for a second this week, you'll probably miss something big happening in the wackiest NFL free-agency period we can remember. That's why we've been staking the situation out, and there are several new developments in the Alex Smith story.
On Saturday, Smith flew to Miami to visit with the Miami Dolphins in what turned into a 5 1/2-hour meeting. He was met at the airport by head coach Joe Philbin, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and general manager Jeff Ireland, and left Sunday morning. That was an expected response after Smith recently turned down a three-year, $24 million deal from San Francisco, and the 49ers jumped into the Peyton Manning sweepstakes as a result.
Last Tuesday, Manning worked out in North Carolina for San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh (the quarterback he replaced in Indianapolis) and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. It was the first of three throwing sessions Manning has conducted for NFL teams this week -- he threw for the Denver Broncos on Friday, and for the Tennessee Titans on Saturday.
According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, 49ers' continued pursuit of Manning has disturbed Smith enough that he's taking further steps on behalf of his NFL future -- not only was he planning a visit with the Seattle Seahawks in the next few days (a trip that's probably superfluous after the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million deal on Sunday afternoon), but he's also considering changing agents from CAA's Tom Condon, who also represents Manning. The Seahawks tried to entice Manning, but never heard back in a serious fashion.
Smith may have a good case if that's what he's thinking. While Condon is masterfully driving up the price for, and interest in, Manning's services, he also extracted a three-year, $16 million contract from the Titans for the services of former Minnesota Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson. It was a nice little combo package on Condon's part -- insuring that the Titans would get Manning's equal attention, while also getting a new deal for a player in Hutchinson, who has obviously seen better days. Meanwhile, Smith's getting overrun by the Manning frenzy and most likely feeling that Condon can't help but have a conflict of interest at this point. The Dolphins tried to position themselves as major players for Manning, but it didn't work out.
While Smith's distress is understandable to a point, he also must realize that a seven-year NFL career in which he's enjoyed just one above-average season puts him well below Manning in the food chain. He excelled as never before in Harbaugh's offensive system last season, helping the 49ers come very close to their first Super Bowl since 1994, but he's also the very definition of a system quarterback. Smith will have to wait until Manning makes his decision for the dominoes to fall, especially now that Flynn has taken a potential landing spot away from him.
Of course, the real danger for the 49ers is that they could enter the 2012 season with Manning and Smith off their roster. At that point, they'd be looking at 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick, and possibly former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Johnson, a free agent whom Harbaugh coached in college at San Diego. It's a worst-case scenario that could be fairly disastrous for a franchise expected to make a very deep playoff run again in 2012, but that's how risky the Manning chase is for all three teams still involved -- while the jilted suitors aim for the "leftovers," the remaining contestants continue to go all-in on Manning, and damn the consequences.
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