49ers can hope Sam Darnold has Alex Smith-like career

Quarterback Alex Smith #11 of the Washington Redskins and quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the New York Jets (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Quarterback Alex Smith #11 of the Washington Redskins and quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the New York Jets (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

New 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold has been a draft bust, but the same was said about Alex Smith years ago. Can Darnold turn things around?

You may or may not love Grant Cohn from Sports Illustrated.

Whatever your thoughts or feelings about his work, he can churn out some pretty thought-provoking content. And, in light of the San Francisco 49ers’ free-agent pickup of quarterback Sam Darnold, Cohn has an interesting bit to add to the discussion.

Read More: Why did Sam Darnold sign with Niners in free agency?

There’s a legit chance Darnold starts for head coach Kyle Shanahan in 2023. The Niners’ other two quarterbacks on the roster, Trey Lance and Brock Purdy, are both coming off serious injuries. Lance has merely four regular-season starts since joining the league in 2021, and Purdy probably won’t be ready in time for Week 1 after undergoing UCL surgery last month.

So, it’s possible Shanahan turns to Darnold. The coach might not have another choice.

Back to Cohn, he analyzed a comparison that needs to be explored, one that links Darnold to another resurrected San Francisco quarterback, Alex Smith.

49ers see comparisons between Sam Darnold and Alex Smith

Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick out of USC in the 2018 NFL Draft, is a draft bust. But those who defend him will point out how he joined a terrible New York Jets program that is only just now getting out from laughingstock status.

And it isn’t as if Darnold’s two-year tenure with the Carolina Panthers was good for his development either.

Smith, as Cohn pointed out, also joined a terrible 49ers program as the No. 1 overall pick out of Utah back in 2005, going through all those offensive coordinators while falling out of favor with then-head coach Mike Nolan:

"Smith was the No. 1 pick, Darnold was the No. 3 pick. Both were drafted to terrible teams with terrible coaches. Both were scapegoated and benched because they tried to do too much, committed lots of turnovers and failed to live up to unreasonable expectations.Then the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh, who rebuilt Smith’s confidence, convinced him to play like a game manager and protect the football, and suddenly Smith became a winning quarterback. Now Kyle Shanahan is attempting to do the same thing with Darnold, and Shanahan just might succeed."

Both Darnold and Smith have notably similar statistics over the same timeframe, which Cohn pointed out.

Whereas Smith finally found his footing with the same team but under a first-year head coach in Harbaugh, Darnold is joining an established program with plenty of weapons under Shanahan.

And Shanahan, who has sought out Darnold as a quarterbacking option before, might finally have his shot to turn the latter’s career into something useful. Darnold is only 25 years old, too, so it’s not as if there’s little room for growth.

Why Sam Darnold will face challenges with 49ers anyway

Darnold’s one-year deal worth up to $4.5 million, $3.5 million of which is guaranteed, is substantial enough and suggests he won’t solely be a training camp body.

That said, the Niners have far more invested in Lance than they do Darnold. Plus, in the wake of Purdy’s shocking success toward the tail end of 2022, it’d take an awful lot for Darnold to beat out either quarterback as a long-term option for Shanahan and San Francisco.

Especially over the duration necessary to turn around an otherwise floundering career.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you prefer Lance or Purdy under center. Either is pegged as a better option long term than Darnold, and that doesn’t necessarily bode well for a Smith-like resurrection.

Unless the 49ers jettison Lance and can’t work Purdy back into the fray anytime soon.

Still, Darnold has his best chance with Shanahan and Co. to turn things around, not unlike Smith’s best chance to do the same when Harbaugh took over the Niners back in 2011.

Thank you, Grant, for highlighting that.

Next. Ranking 49ers' 10 best quarterbacks in franchise history. dark