But that won't stop 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan from shopping for new quarterback talent while Smith is gone.
McCloughan remained hopeful Thursday that the 49ers can keep Smith, who was the GM's first draft pick and the centerpiece of his attempt to rebuild the franchise. After two years of injury problems, Smith and McCloughan both realize the quarterback can't return to the team at his $9 million base salary for next season, and Smith has indicated he's willing to renegotiate.
"The conversation has been positive through Alex and through his agent (Tom Condon)," McCloughan said. "We'd love to have him back as a 49er. ... There's no set timeline, (but) I think from everybody's standpoint, sooner would be better, because if he wants the opportunity to start at quarterback, he has to go through the entire offseason program to earn that spot."
The 49ers' first team workouts are scheduled to start March 16, so Smith would have to rework his deal in the next two weeks to participate. McCloughan said the 49ers conceivably could keep Smith on the roster all the way to training camp but couldn't allow him on the field without a reworked contract for fear of injury.
McCloughan acknowledged that Smith is in a difficult position.
"For us to ask him to restructure, that's kind of a shock," McCloughan said. "He's under contract for two more years, and for us to ask him to take a pay cut, it's kind of a blow to the ego."
Smith missed last season because of a shoulder injury. He also struggled in 2007 after separating his shoulder and then attempting to return too soon, with his problems causing a rift between him and coach Mike Nolan.
McCloughan, who chose Smith ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Braylon Edwards in the notoriously flimsy 2005 draft, still believes the former University of Utah star has potential that he hasn't tapped. Smith has passed for 4,679 yards in 32 games, along with 19 touchdown passes and 31 interceptions.
"I'm a fan of Alex Smith," McCloughan said. "I think being 24 -- he'll be 25 next year -- he's got a lot of good football ahead of him. We need to get an identity on offense. We need to get a structure in place that's consistent more than one year. I think you'll see not just the quarterback position, but all positions on offense, take a step forward."
But don't expect the 49ers to pay top dollar for a big-name free agent, as they have done in recent signing periods, even though the team is fairly healthy against the salary cap.
"It's not going to be a big splash like it was with Nate (Clements) or with Justin (Smith)," McCloughan said. "We're not going that route this year, but know this: We are going to use free agency as a tool to make our roster better."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press