Is Alex Smith still Kansas City’s long-term answer at QB?

Analyst Eric Eager breaks down the long-term prospects of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.

| 4 months ago
Chiefs QB Alex Smith

(Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Is Alex Smith still Kansas City’s long-term answer at QB?

The Chiefs’ season ended Sunday with a hard-fought home loss to a Steelers team that, in almost every way, outplayed them from the opening kick to the final kneel-down. While the team’s sixth home playoff loss in eight tries concluded the 2016 season in disappointing fashion, it was a remarkable campaign for Andy Reid’s club. After losing Sean Smith, Jeff Allen, Ben Grubbs, Husain Abdullah, Mike DeVito and Tyvon Branch in the offseason, Kansas City was forced to play much of the year without key starters Jamaal Charles, Justin Houston, Jeremy Maclin, Jaye Howard, Allen Bailey, Josh Mauga and Parker Ehinger—and still came away with a 12-4 record and their first division title since 2010.

While adversity has been a constant for the Chiefs under Reid, winning games has been as well. The Chiefs’ have compiled a 44-24 record (including playoffs) during his tenure, including three playoff berths (the Chiefs had only three playoff berths the previous 15 years combined). While defense and special teams have been Kansas City’s calling card—with the defense ranking second, 12th, sixth, and 14th, and the special teams unit sixth, fifth, third and third in our grading since 2013—the competent play of quarterback Alex Smith has given credibility to an offense that ranked 31st and 32nd in the league in scoring the previous two years before he arrived, and had been the team’s Achilles’ heel for most of the previous decade. With all of that said, the Chiefs are just 1-3 in the playoffs with Smith, and his limited, ultra-conservative style of play leaves people wondering whether or not he can help them win their first Super Bowl title since January 1970. Kansas City’s decision regarding the future of their quarterback position is multifaceted, with their tolerance of Smith’s deficiencies probably resting on a sliding scale correlated with how things pan out across the rest of their roster. In this piece, we discuss Smith’s future in relation to other key roster components for the Chiefs.

Kansas City’s current backup quarterback situation

The Chiefs have one of the most precarious cap situations in the league. According to Over the Cap, they are projected to possess just $4.28 million of cap space this offseason, which is 30th in the league. One of Smith’s possible replacements, backup quarterback Nick Foles, is due a $10.75 million cap number for 2017, but all of that money can be used as cap savings if he is released before June 1. Foles will always be remembered for his outrageous statistical season in 2013, but since that time, he hasn’t been close to being a positively-graded player in PFF’s system, and was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league when asked to guide a conservative St. Louis Rams offense in 2015. Given that Smith would count for almost $11 million in dead money over the next two years were he released this offseason, I don’t see a scenario in which the Chiefs keep Foles either as their starter or as a bridge to an up-and-coming player and jettison Smith.

Although Tyler Bray was able to beat out draft pick Aaron Murray for the third-string job this preseason, he has just 185 preseason snaps to his name, and is a long shot at best to every make a substantial contribution to the Chiefs’ offense.

Upcoming draft and free agency

The Chiefs hold the 27th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, and are projected to gain about four compensatory picks to bring their total to 11 picks. Although there are teams with quarterback situations more dire than Kansas City’s, it’s not extremely unlikely that one or more players from the group, including Deshaun Watson (Clemson), DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame), Pat Mahomes (Texas Tech) and Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina), falls into a palatable spot for the Chiefs. In such a case, Kansas City could draft Smith’s successor with the intention of sitting him for a year. Pushing the starting quarterback decision to 2018—where Smith is due $20.6 million (versus $16.9 in 2017), of which only $3.6 would be dead if he were let go ($7.2 in 2017)—would give the Chiefs a more clear-cut path towards deciding the future of the position.

In an era where later-round QBs like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott are quarterbacking their teams deep into the playoffs, it may be tempting for Kansas City to consider using a late pick on a quarterback they hope to develop and compete for the starting spot in 2018, or possibly late in 2017. Numbers would not be on their side in this event, however, as only two (including Prescott) of the seven quarterbacks drafted between rounds two and five in the 2016 draft are even close to front-runners for their team’s starting spot in 2017, and only one of four such players from 2015 are in that position today. The Chiefs themselves have spent fifth-round picks in two of the last three drafts on quarterbacks, neither of whom is on Kansas City’s roster at the moment.

The lack of cap space available to the Chiefs will make the acquisition of someone like Tony Romo or Tyrod Taylor highly unlikely, and the pursuit of cheaper options like Mike Glennon (Tampa Bay), Matt Barkley (Chicago) or Landry Jones (Pittsburgh) comes with similar uncertainty as a high draft pick, but at a possibly higher monetary cost.

Chiefs’ offensive supporting cast

Since Smith arrived in 2013, his supporting cast has evolved from a group consisting predominantly of running back Jamaal Charles (who accounted for 36.7 percent of Kansas City’s total offensive yards, and 46.3 percent of their offensive touchdowns) to a group of pass catchers that includes tight end Travis Kelce (the second-highest graded receiving tight end in the league), Jeremy Maclin (2.16 yards per route run and only one drop in 2015) and Tyreek Hill (a team-high nine offensive touchdowns as a rookie in 2016). Despite this evolution, Smith has largely remained the same from both a process and productivity standpoint, averaging just 7.0, 6.0, 7.0 and 7.0 yards of depth per target and 6.7, 7.1, 7.2 and 7.0 yards per pass attempt in his four seasons in Kansas City. While the former numbers are near the bottom of the league, the latter have actually slightly risen up the quarterback ranks, speaking to how the Chiefs have better adapted their offense to suit Smith’s skills.

With Charles’ injury history and salary ($7 million, $0 dead money if let go), it’s unlikely that he’ll be around in his customary role. Spencer Ware is a capable starter, but was slowed by injuries towards the end of the 2016 season, and would benefit from a comparable complementary back. While depth is a long-term concern, the offensive line played much better in 2016 than it did in 2015, going from 23rd in the league in pass blocking efficiency to fourth, while staying in the middle of the pack as a run-blocking unit. With none of their key offensive players set to enter free agency, a 2017 offense that includes—and is built for—Alex Smith will have little in the way of unknowns, which can often help the process of making decisions on the other side of the ball.

Kansas City’s defense

Long-time Chiefs defenders Eric Berry and Dontari Poe are set to hit free agency this offseason and, while Berry has continued to be a difference-maker on the back end, Poe has regressed substantially from his breakout 2013 season up front, with his run-stop percentage falling from 8.5 to 4.0 during that time. With Poe struggling and Howard and Bailey on IR, Kansas City’s run defense was struggling even before future Hall of Famer Derrick Johnson tore his Achilles for the second time in three seasons, and was dragged around by Le’Veon Bell to the tune of 170 yards (89 after contact) this past Sunday. The Chiefs’ front-seven is therefore sure to be an area of need this coming offseason, as they try to take their yards per carry allowed from the 4.4 this season back to something like the 4.1 they allowed in 2015. This need might require a high pick or a series of middle-round picks—selections that might otherwise be earmarked towards filling the quarterback-of-the-future position.

Re-signing Berry is an absolute must, as it is difficult to see the Chiefs elevating from the “good” defense that got them to the Divisional Round of the AFC Playoffs the last two years to the “elite” defense necessary to win a Super Bowl with Alex Smith at quarterback without Berry in the deep middle of the defense. It’s likely he’ll command something in the neighborhood of $10–13 million a year, which will sufficiently deplete the resources necessary to replace Smith with a big-name passer in 2017, further underscoring the difficulties the Chiefs face with this quarterback position as it pertains to this upcoming season.

Is Smith the best long-term option?

While Alex Smith surely leaves many underwhelmed with his play, the Chiefs’ circumstances, and his consistency and durability, make keeping him as the starting quarterback going into the 2017 the soundest play. PFF’s 13th-highest-graded quarterback has been remarkably steady during the course of his tenure in Kansas City, and that steadiness goes a long way towards making difficult decisions regarding how much to pay Eric Berry, what to do with Derrick Johnson and Jamaal Charles, and where to add depth defensively, at running back and on the offensive line.

Chiefs QB Alex Smith

Of the 47 quarterbacks with more than 500 passing snaps the last four years, Smith has just the second-most turnover-worthy throws. Elite play on the part of the Chiefs’ defense and special teams, coupled with the mistake-free football for which Smith and his supporting cast are capable, are enough to bring a Super Bowl title to Kansas City next season.

Be that as it may, elite play from defense and special teams is difficult to sustain. Additionally, as the Chiefs’ three drops and a fumble on Sunday would attest, supporting casts do not always sufficiently support their quarterback (Smith was the highest-graded player on the Kansas City offense Sunday). Smith most likely lacks the upside to overcome any deficiencies from the aforementioned parties, generating the eighth-fewest big-time throws since becoming the Chiefs’ quarterback, which makes the desire to move on from him both natural and reasonable. If the Chiefs are confident they can enhance their defense, running game and offensive line depth by using lower-round picks, using a high draft pick on an eventual successor and starting him out behind Smith on the depth chart come 2017 is probably Kansas City’s best path towards eventually competing with New England and Pittsburgh, among other annual playoff contenders, for supremacy in the AFC.

| Analyst

Eric Eager joined Pro Football Focus in 2015. He is currently working on a number of analytics projects, primarily focused on the NFL.

  • James Winslow

    They should take a shot at romo.

    • Christoph Szabo

      no cap room

      • crosseyedlemon

        And even if there was you don’t sign someone his age as your QB for the future.

    • Norman

      We don’t need Romo he chokes in pressure situations check it out his record bears it out, Smith can take this team to a Super Bowl & win he’s not the ones dropping passes and not the one running the ball for 35-40 yards a game. So people shouldn’t lay all this on Smith he only plays one position albeit it’s a very important one but he can do this plus Andy gets way to conservative at times

      • Moses

        Lol, one of those guys huh? His stats (that you pointed out) actually prove the opposite of what you are saying. It’s not Romo’s fault that they lost playoff games. Poor clock management, awful defense, dropped passes etc cost the Cowboys those games. Romo is the only reason they were as good as they were all those years. Before they invested in offensive line he literally carried that team on his back and kept them relevant. His injuries are due to poor offensive line play and being rushed back into the line up before he should have been. Romo is a legit, top tier QB and if he restructured his contract to be more cap friendly would be an upgrade over Smith.

      • Moses

        Romo ranks sixth among active QBs for the most fourth-quarter comebacks – playing fewer games than anyone ahead of him on that list and those below him on the Top 10 list
        Romo ranks ninth among active QBs for the most game winning drives – again, playing fewer games than those above him on the list
        Romo has had phenomenal fourth-quarter QB ratings. His career 102.1 QB rating in the fourth-quarter is the best among active QBs in the league, considerably surpassing the elite QBs like Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady. His 2012 rating (101.2) and 2013 rating (105.6) means he is likely still the best in the league in the fourth-quarter.
        In games in Dec. and Jan. Romo has 63.3 completion % and 50 TD vs. 29 INT

  • Colin Sowards

    Yeah, I don’t see how KC wins a Super Bowl with Alex Smith under center. They’ve provided him with everything a QB could want- good receivers in Kelce/Maclin, an explosive Tyreek Hill, and a bulldog RB in Spencer Ware. The offensive line is okay, but it’s far from totally awful. Yet Smith is the same guy each and every year- good enough to win games so long as the rest of the team is very good. There’s no reason to think KC is a Super Bowl contender next season- especially if Berry leaves in FA. KC can win 9-10 games next year, but the QB just isn’t good enough.

    • crosseyedlemon

      “They’ve provided him with everything a QB could want” (?). So Smith should be able to win playoff games with a run game that only manages 61 yards on 14 carries? I think even Brady would be hard pressed to do that.

      • Trenton

        They’ve revamped the offense for him. 1st it was our wide receivers sucked so we sign Maclin and then draft Conley and Tyreek in back to back drafts, and then it was the offensive lines fault so we revamped the line into one of the better pass blocking units in the leage. He’s got an elite defense and special teams…guarantee guys like Kirk Cousins or Andrew Luck could do wonders with all that.

        • crosseyedlemon

          If the Chiefs actually thought Cousins was a major upgrade over Smith they would probably trade Berry for him but that ain’t gonna happen. Luck was the first overall pick his draft year so he should be expected to thrive in any system that has at least a moderate level of talent.

  • Michael M

    I was hoping for some stats like adjusted yards/attempt for the game, etc.

  • Die-hard Chiefs fan

    This is exactly what I think. Smith is capable of a superbowl but everyone around him needs to be on point as well. The three drops killed us. The offensive lines penalities killed us. The no call on Kelce when it’s pass interference killed us. Berry will be resigned no problem. It maybe at the expense of someone. It’s a no brainer to cut Foles. Now the question remains what will happen with Charles. If he still has some left in the tank he’s worth keeping around but he has to take a pay cut. Injuries just plagued the chiefs once again. Likey they said when ranking the top front 7’s KC could potentially have the best front seven in football but everyone can never stay healthy. With DJ’s injury it’s even reasonable to question the level of play DJ will be at next year. Howard had the most run stops at his position in 2015. Bailey is one of the strongest DL in all of the NFL ( Peterson in 2015 stated that when Bailey tackled him you can feel his strength). They have 11 picks to shore up some holes. Chief’s were third in the NFL in dropped passes. They should replace the second TE and Fourth wr with capable playmakers. Maybe Jackson from Washington will be cheap enough past 30. Plenty of TE’s in this draft. We need better depth at CB and ILB. For the most part KC has no glaring needs if you’re content with getting better playmakers for Smith for one last run in 2017. The losses of Howard, Bailey, DJ and even a rusty Houston held this team back. They could very well keep on sweeping the West. Denver will regress with new coaches as will San Diego. Oakland is the only threat and Alex Smith is 8-1 against Oakland all time. The Chiefs have the piece’s they just need to stay healthy.

    • Eric

      Thank you for reading.

    • Lloyd

      I also believe Smith can get this team to a SuperBowl. The problem this year is they went away from running the ball. I hope we find a way to keep J.C. because if he can stay healthy 80-85% Charles is still better than 100% Ware. We have all the pieces we need on offense other than that dominate RB (again, Charles, could be that guy for one more year). We need that dominate running game again.

    • Lord humongous

      Trent Dilfer won a SB, and Brady and Roethlisberger are much older than Smith, nearing the end zone of their careers. Yes, you have a problem with Carr, but, today, Reid is a better coach than Blackjack Del Rio.

  • Frank Yi

    Second most turnover-worthy throws? Shouldn’t that be second least?

    • Eric

      Yes, thank you for spotting that.

  • Kevin Woods

    Berry going home to play for Atlanta. Or was that not an audtion when KC played there? And they have the money. Of course it doesn’t matter if the chiefs have the money, he doesn’t want to play here anymore. I wish him the best

    • Norman

      Did he say he didn’t won’t to play here anymore what your source I say they slap a franchise tag on him he is the Heart & soul of the defense u take your heart out we r dead

  • jetpak

    Too many questions and no answers. With the return of Bailey and Howard, the D-line looks good on paper. DJ will be back, hopefully at full strength. If they re-sign EB, I think we’ll be fine, there. Poe is probably going to re-up, I don’t get a sense he wants to break the bank; (he probably knows he struggled a bit this season). Chiefs need to find some interior O-lineman in the draft and add more LB depth. Our Corners looks solid, but a few more wouldn’t hurt. Gaines has got to go!!! Sean Smith was a bust for Oakland, could he be let go?
    Finally, get a capable backup QB. Smith needs to go; if not this off-season, then certainly the next, especially if they are struggling or eliminated early from the playoffs, yet again.

  • crosseyedlemon

    If your asking us if Smith will be the Chiefs starter 5 years from now I would say probably not. If they upgrade the offense they can still win plenty of games with him though as long as the defense stays stout. Andy Reid might be the best coach at making the most of moderate talent so he will keep the ship afloat until the right replacement is available for Smith.

  • The Vanquisher

    I like Smith, but I do agree they should consider moving on if they don’t make the next big step next season to a Super Bowl or a Conference Championship. KC is on the verge of being a consistent powerhouse. But it’s really hard to pinpoint why they aren’t making that big leap.

    Smith is semi-elite at best and slightly below average at worst. He doesn’t screw up as big as Palmer or Newton but he does lack clutch. I do think he needs better receiving playmakers though. Besides Kelce and Hill is their really any receiver that stands out? KC should go wild on the O-Line during draft night. Either their first or second picks should be a WR. And if KC still doesn’t make the leap, Then sadly it’s time.

  • Lord humongous

    Just one view from Philly. I did not want Reid to go. We are on our second coach and fifth quarterback since his departure. I admire how Reid got to KC and got a great QB through trade and just ran with it from there. I do not approve of trading multiple draft picks, including another first round, to move up in the draft to take a QB. Yes, we got the key pick back from the Bradford trade, but that doesn’t excuse the original Management decision. Yes, Wentz is exciting and promising and I am not complaining, I’m just saying, I admire what Reid did in KC as far as acquiring a QB.

    I was rooting for you, however, after watching that game, I ask myself, are Reid and Smith good enough? I don’t want to be a downer, maybe next year is the year.

    Another thing to consider, In 2015, I was excited that Reid ran the ball more, 45.7% which was 7th in the league and probably the most Reid had ever run it, but in 2016, it was down, again to 41.6%, 13th. Maybe there is a reason for that, your O Line, your RB, I don’t know. I also notice, Smith’s rushing numbers were down from 500 to 134. Again, I don’t know why. I only offer this as a point of optimism that maybe there is room for improvement.

    Again, this is just one view from Philly. Good Luck! Reid is a great man and wins a lot of games.

    • crosseyedlemon

      I suspect that Reid still has a lot of friends and supporters in Philly and it’s nice to see a comment like this from one of them. Not easy being an Eagles fan as the franchise always seems to sabotage their own chances for success.

  • McGeorge

    Since it’s so easy to get a top 10 QB, of course KC should move on from Smith.
    Just draft a QB in the first round and you have a really good QB.
    That always works, right?

    In all seriousness, Smith isn’t great but he’s Ok. Its hard to get a very good QB. It takes a lot of draft stock and some luck. Maybe you get a Dak Prescott in the 4th or a Russel Wilson in the third. Maybe you get a scrub in the 1st. Jared Goff?
    Are the Chiefs better off using a couple of #1s to take a chance, and that guy may be a bust? Its better to address other needs.

  • T.J.

    Jets need a QB baaaaad, I wanted them to get Smith was it 5 seasons ago ? light years better than the guys the wizards in Jet managem come up with, decade after decade.

    • crosseyedlemon

      Talent is almost a secondary consideration when the Jets sign a coach or high profile QB. The NY media can absolutely crucify someone that doesn’t measure up to their expectations so it takes a special kind of person to succeed in that kind of environment.

  • Moses

    If the Chiefs strengthened that O Line and Romo restructured then they could benefit off that trade. Are there risks? Of course there are but that comes with any gamble but the possible benefits outweigh the risks as long as he restructures his contract. Smith just doesn’t have the presence on the field to spark the team and take them all the way. If Dallas had the offensive weapons and that beastly defense that K.C. has then they would have won at least one superbowl. Unfortunately Romo played with one of the worst defenses and carried that team on his back. They were so dependent on Romo that they rushed him back from injuries way to soon only for him to get injured again. As to his most recent injury, just about any qb in that same situation would have been injured and some worse than he was. Let’s talk stats, with less playing time Romo has almost 100 more TD’s, 7,000 more career yards, a higher ypa and a far better TD to INT ratio not to mention he’s top 5 in 4th qtr comeback wins among active qbs while recording less playing time than peers (Rodgers, Brady, Brees). Yes it’s a risk going after him but if the circumstances are favorable then it’s a risk with taking because Chiefs won’t be able to hold onto all of those championship caliber players forever and their superbowl window will close if they don’t correct their qb situation asap.