Alex Smith: Is San Francisco 49ers Signal-Caller a Top-15 QB in NFL Today?

Joseph Akeley@@Jakeley_BRAnalyst IOctober 10, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 07: Quarterback Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers passes the ball against the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter at Candlestick Park on October 7, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Alex Smith might be the most polarizing starting quarterback in the NFL.

The San Francisco 49ers signal-caller is often cited as the sole reason why Jim Harbaugh's squad will not win a Super Bowl this year.

Yet, he's also the league's leader in QBR and passer rating after five weeks of the 2012 season.

Is he simply a product of the great team around him, or is he a top-15 quarterback who deserves more respect?

Let's take a closer look at the much-maligned quarterback.


Smith's best attribute is his ability to avoid turnovers. He's thrown just six interceptions since the beginning of the 2011-12 season, compiling a 1.03 interception rate in that span—which is far and away the best rate among qualifying quarterbacks.

Smith also showed some mental fortitude in clutch situations last year. He quarterbacked six fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories last season, including the unforgettable triumph against the Saints in the playoffs.


Smith's worst attribute is his pocket presence. He rarely makes progressions, instead choosing to tuck it and run or throw the ball to the check-down receiver. His inability to scan the field is most damaging on third downs.

The 49ers ranked 31st in third-down conversions in 2011 with a rate of 29.4 percent. San Francisco is up to 39.6 percent this season, but that number was inflated by the 49ers converting 7-of-11 third downs against the Bills, none via a Smith pass.

Many have pointed to Smith's lack of arm strength and accuracy on deep throws as a weakness, but the San Francisco signal-caller has the best QBR in the league when attempting passes of 15 or more yards on first or second down, according to Albert Larcada of

I'm not ready to put Smith in the same category of deep-ball excellence as Aaron Rodgers, but let's at least acknowledge that he has shown vast improvement in this area.

Stats of Top Quarterbacks Since Start of 2011-12 Regular Season

Player Touchdowns Interceptions Yards/Attempt W-L Record
Aaron Rodgers 55  10  8.6  16-4
Tom Brady 47   13  8.4  16-5
Drew Brees 60  20  8.1 14-7
Eli Manning 39 21 8.3  12-9
Matt Ryan 42  15  7.4  15-6
Ben Roethlisberger 29  15  7.7  13-6
Matthew Stafford 44  20  7.4 11-9
Cam Newton 25  22  8.0  7-14
Michael Vick 24  20  7.6  10-8
Philip Rivers 35  25  7.8  11-10 
Jay Cutler 20  14  7.5  11-4
Matt Schaub 23  8.2 12-3 
Tony Romo 36  18  7.9  10-10
Peyton Manning 11  7.6  2-3
Alex Smith 25  7.3 17-4
Joe Flacco 27  16 7.0 16-5
Andy Dalton 29  19 6.9  12-9
Ryan Fitzpatrick 36  31  6.8  8-13
Andrew Luck 6.8  2-2
Robert Griffin III 8.4  2-3

The above chart is in no particular order, although the first four listed are clearly in a class Smith will never reach.

Obviously, the stats in this chart are impacted by a ton of variables. For example, the Lions have almost no running game whatsoever. Naturally, a quarterback's yards-per-attempt average will be lower if defenses know his team is throwing every down, making Matthew Stafford's stats all the more impressive. Because of this, he easily ranks as one of the 10 best quarterbacks in the game.

Ben Roethlisberger gets extra points for his two Super Bowls and his incredible ability to lead the Steelers to wins behind an abysmal offensive line.

Matt Schaub may be the most underrated signal-caller in the league. He protects the ball almost as well as Smith, yet he's far more productive. 

Peyton Manning has bounced back from a brutal Week 2 performance against the Falcons with three consecutive 300-plus-yard games. He may not belong in the top five anymore, but he certainly belongs in the top 10.

Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck haven't appeared in enough games to be fairly critiqued. That being said, when looking at the stats, RG3 absolutely belongs in the top 10. For the sake of argument, let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Luck has been impressive in his own right, but he may need a year of seasoning before being considered a top-15 quarterback.

Rounding out my top 10 is Matt Ryan, who's off to a hot start in the 2012 without having the assistance of a prolific running game.

This is where things get tricky.

Tony Romo is coming off his worst performance in years and the Cowboys continue to plod in mediocrity, but if you just look at his stats over the last two years, he clearly belongs in the top 10. I tend to think Romo, who is often ridiculed for his struggles in clutch situations, gets unfairly judged by the media. 

Philip Rivers' turnover rate is a major issue, but he's also been one of the best third-down passers in the NFL for a long time. He guided the Chargers to the second-best third-down conversion mark in the NFL in the 2011-12 regular season.

Cam Newton has had a terrible start to his sophomore season. Still, the Panthers quarterback has the seventh-best yards-per-attempt average on the above chart, and he's the most dangerous running quarterback in the league.

Jay Cutler may be underrated considering he plays behind an awful offensive line and still puts up respectable numbers.

Michael Vick and Joe Flacco are two of the most overrated quarterbacks in the NFL today. Vick's turnovers are absolutely killing the Eagles offense, which is averaging just 16 points per game. Flacco has so much talent around, yet he's only averaging seven yards per attempt over the last two seasons.

Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton have the potential to move into the top 15 in the coming years, but right now their stats are simply not good enough to warrant that billing.


Before Harbaugh became head coach of the 49ers, Smith was consistently one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. There's no question that much of Smith's success should be credited to Harbaugh. Some may even argue that Smith deserves no credit, with the premise that any quarterback would succeed with the 49ers' supporting cast and coaches.

There's no doubt that Smith benefits from his environment, which includes the NFL's best rushing attack, but I don't think it's fair to say that he hasn't made huge strides as a quarterback. Besides, don't all quarterbacks owe some of their success to their coaches and teammates?

With that said, I believe Smith ranks somewhere in the range between No.12 through 15 with Rivers, Newton and Cutler.

Ultimately, Flacco's higher turnover rate and lower yards-per-attempt average bumps him a notch or two below Smith. Vick's turnover issues are too hard to ignore, especially when being compared to the 49ers' ball-security maestro.

Dalton, Fitzpatrick. Luck, Josh Freeman and Carson Palmer are all lurking, but they just don't have the numbers to match Smith's recent success.

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