Grant Cohn: Alex Smith trade opens rich opportunity for 49ers

Alex Smith is a gift from God to the 49ers.

They continue to benefit from his existence. Smith will help the 49ers more this offseason than he ever did when he was on the team.

Bow your head and give thanks.

Before the Chiefs traded Smith to the Washington Redskins Tuesday night, the Niners were desperate. They wanted to negotiate a long-term contract extension with their free-agent quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, but had no leverage. They needed him. They were all in.

Garoppolo was not all in. He was dipping his little toe in the water and gazing around the pool. He never publicly said he wanted to sign a long-term extension with the 49ers. He may prefer to accept the franchise tag, see how things go next season and potentially leave the 49ers in 2019 if the team underperforms in 2018.

Now, thanks to Smith, they don’t need to worry about that possibility. They don’t need Garoppolo. They could take him or leave him at this point. In fact, they could trade him. And they should. They should trade Jimmy Garoppolo.

Let me explain.

On March 14 when free agency begins, the Smith trade will become official and he will become the Redskins’ starting quarterback. Their former starting quarterback, Kirk Cousins, will become a free agent.

That’s who the 49ers should sign long term to play quarterback. Cousins. Not Garoppolo.

Don’t get me wrong - Garoppolo shows promise. He has the ideal skillset for a quarterback and was successful in a short period of time with the 49ers. He is undefeated as a starter in the NFL, he’s only 26 and he has a relatively clean injury history – cleaner than some of the quarterbacks in this year’s draft.

If Garoppolo were in the draft, he would almost certainly be the first pick. Other rookies would be much riskier selections. One of them could be the next Ryan Leaf - a flat-out bust. Garoppolo definitely isn’t a bust. Teams have seen him play well in the NFL. He is one of the most valuable assets in the league right now.

And that’s why the 49ers should sign him to the franchise tag and then trade him. His trade value is worth more than his athletic ability to the Niners.

I count five teams that would kill to have Garoppolo: the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals. The 49ers can give Garoppolo the franchise tag on March 14, then trade him to one of those five teams before the draft. At minimum, the Niners probably would receive two first-round picks, a second-round pick and a third-round pick.

And then, the Niners can sign Cousins. He may be even better than Garoppolo, who has started only seven games in his career. Cousins has started 57. He is a proven commodity. His 99.7 passer rating since 2015 ranks fourth highest in the NFL behind Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan during that period.

Cousins had a down year in 2017 - his passer rating fell to 93.9 and his completion percentage fell to 64.3. But, there are reasons for that. He lost to free agency two starting wide receivers (Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson). And he lost to injury a starting tight end (Jordan Reed), a starting running back (Robert Kelley), a starting guard (Shawn Lauvao) and a starting tackle (Trent Williams).

So, of course Cousins had a down year. He still threw 27 touchdown passes and only 13 interceptions. Good ratio. Garoppolo threw seven TD passes and five INTs in six appearances with the Niners. Bad ratio.

Cousins has something else going for him.

He knows Shanahan better than Garoppolo does.

Shanahan and Garoppolo have known each other for three months. Shanahan and Cousins have known each other for six years. Shanahan drafted Cousins in 2012 and helped develop him.

Garoppolo still has not learned all of Shanahan’s offense. Garoppolo has to go back to Quarterback School 101 and learn the system from the beginning. But he can’t even start until mid-April during OTAs. The league allows zero communication between players and coaches the next few months.

Cousins learned Shanahan’s offense years ago. Probably still has a copy of Shanahan’s playbook somewhere in his closet. Cousins would eliminate the learning curve at quarterback for the 49ers.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying Cousins is a better quarterback than Garoppolo. That’s debatable.

I’m saying Cousins is a better quarterback than Garoppolo for the 49ers.

Cousins plus the picks the 49ers would receive in a trade for Garoppolo is a far better value than Garoppolo on his own. That’s not debatable. That’s common sense.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and You can reach him at

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