What's the Impact of Alex Smith Getting Traded to Washington?

In a blockbuster trade late on Tuesday night, the Kansas City Chiefs dealt quarterback Alex Smith to Washington. How does this transaction impact both teams involved, along with Kirk Cousins?

I’ll be honest, making a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington analogy for the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington trade that took place late on Tuesday night wasn’t the highest-hanging fruit I could’ve plucked, but here we are.

The aforementioned feature film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, features the funny and charming James Stewart as Mr. Jefferson Smith, idealistic appointee to the U.S. Senate. Smith enters Congress with big dreams, but runs into trouble when the corrupt and cynical career politicos in Washington begin to sabotage him.

With quarterback Alex Smith making his way from the nation’s breadbasket to the nation’s capital, there are some reasons that Mr. Smith – and each of the parties affected by the move – should be hopeful. Still, as a skeptic myself, there are some head-scratching parts of this deal to be wary of.

Is this the right deal for America, or was it doomed from the start?

Either Dead Right or Crazy: Washington’s Side

From Washington’s perspective, they are thrilled to get Smith and sustain something resembling competitiveness in a pretty open NFC East in 2018 and onward, despite former franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins walking in free agency.

Prior to the trade, Washington negotiated a four-year, $94 million extension (with a whopping $71 million guaranteed) for Smith so they could have some stability at the position. But was it smart for them to do this with a 34-year-old passer?

We will investigate this in terms of numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score production, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influences the outcome of games.

What Washington acquires in Smith is a player who earned a strong 0.20 Passing NEP per drop back (6th-highest among the 35 quarterbacks to drop back at least 200 times) and 47.04 percent Passing Success Rate (10th), which is the percentage of drop backs converted to positive NEP. The table below shows Smith’s last five years put in comparison with his 2017 explosion of value.

Year Player Team Drop Backs Pass NEP/P Pass Success %
2013 Alex Smith KC 547 0.05 (19th) 44.79% (23rd)
2014 Alex Smith KC 509 0.10 (14th) 47.74% (15th)
2015 Alex Smith KC 515 0.08 (19th) 46.41% (21st)
2016 Alex Smith KC 517 0.14 (18th) 47.39% (18th)
2017 Alex Smith KC 540 0.20 (6th) 47.04% (10th)

At age-33 this past year, Smith hit a five-year (and career) high in production, while not sacrificing any of his consistent, chain-moving success rate. That kind of late-career upswing in value could mean the late-blooming, former first overall pick is finally living up to his promise, but history dictates that it’s not likely for a quarterback blooming this late in their career can sustain that kind of value without a major change.

Smith did throw downfield in 2017 more than before. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, by Intended Air Yards (the average distance a pass traveled before the intended receiver), he went from 7.5 to 8.0 over the last year. While not massive, this is a sizable swing for a player who has been a classic West Coast passer his whole career.

Can he be worth the almost comically large contract he was given, even into his late 30’s? He’ll certainly be worth the third-round pick (plus a player) that Washington sent for him, especially since they’ll receive third-round compensation for Cousins leaving. Still, I’m more skeptical he’s able to meet even his career average rates at an advanced age.

Things Happen Fast: Kansas City’s Side

One minute, you’re making the playoffs with a rejuvenated quarterback and one of the storylines of the year; the next, you’re shipping the first-half MVP out of town for a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller. The Chiefs have to be crazy for this, right?

Not exactly. Don’t fear, KC fans: the future is already in Kansas City, and his name is Patrick Mahomes.

Mahomes, the 10th overall selection in last year’s draft, did not play much in his rookie year, thanks to Smith’s revival tour and the Chiefs being in pole position in the AFC West most of the time. He did get to start one game, however, and posted some strong numbers in that opportunity.

Year Player Team Drop Backs Pass NEP/P Pass Success %
2017 Patrick Mahomes KC 37 0.22 51.35%

While 37 drop backs is an admittedly small sample size, it’s also an audition that shows just how much truth there is to the hype surrounding Mahomes. Dazzling coaches in the offseason is nice, but putting up a value per-play mark on par with Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger is better. Preseason is one thing, but having per-play consistency like Brees and Matt Ryan is another. On top of that, he was playing with Kansas City’s backups and against the Denver Broncos’ starting defense.

With Alex Smith no longer in Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes enters this offseason as the almost certain starter for the Chiefs, who were ninth-best in opponent-adjusted Passing NEP per play as a team this past year. In 2018, Mahomes’ cannon-armed dual-threat profile could elevate this offense even more, and should be a big infusion of talent at the position in fantasy football.

Even better, the Chiefs get a third-round pick (78th overall in 2018) and Fuller to add to their defense. It was an easy call for them to approve this move.

Better Than the Truth: Kirk Cousins’ Side

Former Washington “franchise quarterback” Kirk Cousins will certainly walk to free agency now. According to NFL insider Adam Schefter, the two parties had not had any contact discussions after the season ended, making this divorce all but a certainty from the start.

Cousins, though, is not in a bad position.

He gets to set his own market in a point of the NFL’s history where around a fourth of the league (eight teams) need a starting quarterback and have the cap space to pay him an enormous contract. With Matthew Stafford leading the position at $27 million per year, and Alex Smith joining Tom Brady and Joe Flacco as the three $20 million passers with over 60 percent of their contract guaranteed, there's a chance we could see a Kirk Cousins signing in the five-year, $150 million dollar range with $90 to $100 million guaranteed.

Is he worth that to some team?

Year Player Team Drop Backs Pass NEP/P Pass Success %
2013 Kirk Cousins WAS 160 -0.25 36.25%
2014 Kirk Cousins WAS 212 0.09 47.64%
2015 Kirk Cousins WAS 569 0.24 51.49%
2016 Kirk Cousins WAS 629 0.24 53.10%
2017 Kirk Cousins WAS 581 0.06 45.96%

Cousins went from a mid-round backup when drafted, to a budding star in 2015 and 2016, then fell back to earth this past year due partly to offensive mastermind Sean McVay leaving the coordinator position in D.C. Cousins earned exactly the position average Passing NEP per drop back this year (20th out of 35), and was significantly less consistent than he had been the previous two seasons.

This down year has to worry some interested parties, but in a quarterback market where even Alex Smith is earning $23.5 million annually, it won’t be shocking to see the next free agent passer re-set the market. Cousins has the high-end upside teams covet – they’ll just have to shell out to get him.

At the very least, this trade will help Washington stay afloat in the near future, while Kansas City gets two valuable assets for an asset they didn’t need anymore, and Kirk Cousins is free to go where he wants and get paid what he wants.

I call that a win for everyone.