Alex Smith's rehab moving slowly but surely

— -- SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Alex Smith hopes to return to action next weekend, but the San Francisco 49ers might be a bit more cautious with their No. 1 overall draft pick.

The bulky brace on the quarterback's right knee was removed Thursday, another bit of progress in his recovery from strained ligaments. Smith was hurt when his cleats got caught in the turf while trying to avoid Washington's LaVar Arrington during a 52-17 loss on Oct. 23.

With decreased swelling and increased mobility allowing him to resume cardiovascular work, Smith is getting eager to return. He hopes to play in the 49ers' road game against Chicago on Nov. 13, but team doctors are aiming for a home game against Seattle on Nov. 20.

"It's hard to put a date on it," said Smith, who has been on the sidelines watching most of the 49ers' practices during his recovery. "A lot is just going to depend on not taking any steps back. It's not just a matter of pain. Even when I walk on it now, it feels different, very loose. It's been very frustrating."

Smith is 23-of-50 for 200 yards, five interceptions and no touchdown passes in his four appearances with San Francisco, including two starts. He signed a six-year, $49.5 million contract before the season.

The 49ers have used two quarterbacks and signed another in the last week to fill the hole left by Smith, who took over the starting job two weeks before his injury. Ken Dorsey started the Niners' win over Tampa Bay last week before spraining his ankle, and Cody Pickett will start Sunday against the New York Giants.

San Francisco already traded veteran Tim Rattay to the Buccaneers last month. The club signed former Giants backup Jesse Palmer on Tuesday to back up Pickett, though Dorsey thinks he'll be healthy enough to be the No. 2 quarterback Sunday.

Dorsey sprained his ankle in the fourth quarter last week, and Pickett led the final three drives in San Francisco's 15-10 win.

"I'm pretty excited and happy about the way the healing is going," Dorsey said. "It wasn't the best, and it's not 100 percent, but playing with pain is just one of the things we've got to do. You've got to push your body to a certain limit to help the team."

When Pickett starts on Sunday, the 49ers will have used four starting quarterbacks in a season for the first time since 1974, the year after John Brodie's retirement.

Steve Spurrier, the 49ers' No. 1 draft pick seven years earlier, finally was free to end his apprenticeship behind Brodie, but he separated his shoulder in San Francisco's final exhibition game. The 49ers muddled through a 6-8 season under coach Dick Nolan - the father of current coach Mike Nolan - with starting quarterbacks Joe Reed, Dennis Morrison, Tom Owen and Norm Snead.