A nod to Alex Smith, amid some questions

Justin from Davis, Calif., asks whether there's something more to Alex Smith. Specifically, can he become truly elite? "What is the hope of someone transforming into a superstar quarterback after so many non-performing years?"

Mike Sando: Before analyzing Smith as a player, let's tip our caps to him for helping the coordinated search for a missing Bay Area teenager over the weekend. His presence helped bring awareness to the search beyond whatever direct assistance he provided. That is commendable.

As for your question, Justin, let's more clearly define the word "elite" for these purposes. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees strike me as truly elite quarterbacks. Smith probably is not going to suddenly put up 30-40 touchdown passes per season.

Smith was most remarkable last season for avoiding mistakes. His interception percentage, 1.1, was third-lowest in NFL history for a player with at least 400 pass attempts. His numbers were good -- 17 touchdowns, five interceptions, 90.7 NFL passer rating -- but far from prolific. They were not elite QB numbers. They were smart, cautious numbers.

The percentages say Smith will have a hard timeInsider maintaining such a low interception rate. However, I do think it's possible for him to improve upon his 2011 numbers. Matt Cassel is not an elite quarterback, but he had a 27-7 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions in 2010. Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman have put together similar ratios in recent seasons.

The 49ers probably will not ask Smith to carry their team. They will want him to protect the football. But with more opportunistic play in the red zone and improved efficiency on third down, Smith can make progress in 2012.