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Monday, October 8, 2012
QBR ranks: 49ers' Alex Smith leads NFL

By Mike Sando

Alex Smith
Alex Smith is making a compelling case this season for being considered as an elite NFL QB.
Alex Smith has generally done what the San Francisco 49ers have asked him to do since last season.

Some of the quarterback's most valuable contributions -- changing plays at the line of scrimmage, for instance -- have been tough to quantify.

Coach Jim Harbaugh called Smith "elite" and promoted him for the Pro Bowl last season. Supporters could always point to Smith's No. 9 ranking in NFL passer rating for 2011 (90.7 set a career high for him) even while Smith and Harbaugh discounted raw stats as a meaningful way to measure quarterback performance.

That was all fine, but money trumps talk and stats. And when Smith became a free agent last offseason, the 49ers let him test the market, something teams almost never allow franchise quarterbacks to do. Smith ultimately commanded a game manager's contract from the 49ers, a three-year deal giving the team an out after only one season.

Despite that No. 9 ranking in passer rating, Smith ranks 20th among NFL quarterbacks in compensation for this season. That salary ranking lines up closely with Smith's No. 22 ranking last season in Total QBR, the metric ESPN developed to take into account a fuller measure of a quarterback's contributions.

Players with high NFL passer ratings and relatively low QBR scores generally aren't asked to carry their offenses. They're efficient passers, but not the most valuable quarterbacks. They're more apt to sign modest contracts.

That was the case for Smith last season.

Times could be changing.

Smith leads the NFL in passer rating and Total QBR through five weeks this season. That suggests he's carrying more of the offensive load for the 49ers, something we saw most demonstrably during a 45-3 victory over Buffalo on Sunday. Smith completed 18 of 24 passes for 303 yards and three touchdowns, including two on throws well down the field.

Football is, of course, a team game. A quarterback surrounded by superior talent enjoys significant advantages.

Smith increasingly appears to be one of those quarterbacks. He has outplayed big-money quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Fitzpatrick so far this season.

Eli Manning, another quarterback outranking Smith on the NFL pay scale, will be on the other sideline when the New York Giants visit Candlestick Park in Week 6. We'll have much more to discuss after that one.

With that, let's take a look at how NFC West passers graded out for Week 5 in relation to Total QBR, with NFL passer ratings in parenthesis as a reference point (thanks to ESPN Stats & Information for the charting info):
The chart below shows how quarterbacks from games involving NFC West teams fared in Total QBR for Week 5, provided they played enough to qualify for inclusion.

The column showing point above average reveals the "number of points contributed by a quarterback over the season, accounting for QBR and how much he plays, above the level of an average quarterback."