Is Alex Smith Really Worth Jay Cutler Money?

Alex Smith thinks his new contract should be comparable to Jay Cutler's. Should it?

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is heading into the final year of his current contract in 2014. Key members of the Chiefs, such as head coach Andy Reid, have recently expressed optimism regarding a new deal getting done with the quarterback, but some media reports have stated otherwise. Jason Cole tweeted that, in January, Smith was looking for a deal above the seven-year, $126 million contract given to Jay Cutler earlier in the offseason, and that price point probably hasn't changed.

Naturally, that has cleared the way for a number of comparisons between the two quarterbacks. Outside of the contract numbers being mentioned, there's not a lot of similarities between the two. To compare the playing styles of Smith and Cutler would be to compare the traits of a motorcycle and station wagon. While they’re technically both designed for the same function, the motorcycle will go faster and be more exciting, but the station wagon is much less likely to crash, burn and look disinterested on the sideline.

Cutler would be labeled by most as a gunslinger, taking advantage of the home run opportunity while accepting the turnovers that come with the aggressive approach. Smith entered a career resurgence in 2011 by avoiding turnovers and minimizing potentially risky throws in favor of high percentage passes. Though the styles are different, we can still compare the impact both of these players have on the field. Using numberFire's Net Expected Points data, we can compare the past three seasons - the time since Alex Smith has played like today's version of Alex Smith - of both quarterbacks to see if this two players deserve the same type of contract.

Smith and Cutler By the Numbers

To begin, here are the passing numbers for both Smith and Cutler since 2011:

Alex Smith

YearDrop BacksPass NEPPass NEP/Drop BackPass Success Rate

Jay Cutler

YearDrop BacksPass NEPPass NEP/Drop BackPass Success Rate

The advanced metrics would give the edge to Smith in all three seasons, but that's mostly due to the difference in their 2012 seasons. Smith's lack of drop backs aided in a high efficiency score, and his Success Rate - the percentage of passes positively effecting NEP - was far better than what Cutler has seen over the last three years.

During these three seasons, Smith has played in 41 games and totaled 53 touchdowns against 17 interceptions. Cutler has played in five fewer games, but only has two fewer touchdowns. He's also thrown 16 more interceptions.

Though Smith and Cutler might seem like worthy comps now, that wasn't always the case. Smith struggled early in his career after being selected first overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, while Cutler found some success within his first few years in Denver. Below is how each quarterback fared on the field before the 2011 season.

Alex Smith

YearDrop BacksPass NEPPass NEP/Drop BackPass Success Rate

Jay Cutler

YearDrop BacksPass NEPPass NEP/Drop BackPass Success Rate

This paints a much different picture between the two. Even in Smith's most recent seasons, he hasn't matched what Cutler did in 2007, nor has he reached Cutler's 2008 totals. While the Chiefs probably don't fear a regression of Smith to the early years of his career, it's clear Cutler has the higher ceiling of the two, which is partially why he got the contract he did.

The best case to be made for Smith to receive a contract similar to Cutler’s is putting almost all the weight on performance over the past few seasons. Still, even if Smith is seeking total numbers close to or exceeding the seven-years and $126 million, that’s a misinterpretation of the contract structure the Bears laid out for their quarterback. The raw numbers are large, but only $54 million of the contract is guaranteed, all in the first three years. In essence, that makes the contract a three-year, $54 million deal with four separate team options. Any year after the third, and the Bears can release or trade Cutler without any salary cap ramifications. The contract is also structured in a way that Cutler becomes financially cuttable as early as the second season. Chicago would save $1 million on their 2015 cap if he is released after 2014.

The average salary over the seven years is the $18.1 million Smith is reportedly seeking, but only three seasons on Cutler’s contract actually have a cap hit above that average. Two of those seasons are the final two of the deal, which Cutler will only see if he earns them with his play in the preceding five seasons. Those years, though, would see Cutler at his age-36 and age-37 seasons. Considering the typical age curve of an NFL quarterback, the odds of him still being the Bears quarterback at that point are not high.

So where does this leave Smith now? The quarterback market has been interesting since the start of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. With scaled down rookie contracts, there should theoretically be room for a middle tier of quarterback contracts, but that has yet to translate into reality. Thus far, the majority of quarterbacks in the NFL are still on rookie deals or have long-term contracts totaling over $100 million.

The middle ground of quarterback contracts barely exists. Per Spotrac, on an average salary basis, there’s an $8.6 million difference between the number 12 quarterback, Tom Brady, and the numbers 17 quarterback, Andrew Luck. That gap is larger than the $7.4 million difference between Brady and the highest average salary, Aaron Rodgers.

Smith isn’t what many would consider a franchise quarterback, even though his recent seasons compare favorably to Cutler. Before the 2012 season, Smith agreed to a three-year, $25.25 million contract to return to San Francisco. With an average salary of $8.4 million for this contract, a raise to $18 million on a new contract would more than double his per season value. While the smarter contract decisions are based on expected future performance rather than past seasons, it’s not hard to imagine the Chiefs struggling to believe Smith can double his value on the field. Doubling Smith’s Pass NEP would put him in the Matthew Stafford or Ben Roethlisberger range, which in all likelihood is above’s Smith’s current ceiling.

Amazingly, though, in his ninth year in the league, Smith will only be in his age-30 season. That should leave the possibility of two to three more peak years before he hits an age when quarterbacks tend to start the decline phase.

The franchise tag is a likely option if 2014 goes well and Kansas City wants to see what Smith has left in the tank for what would be his age-31 season. Right now, that tag would be around $17.5 million using the current projected top five quarterback salaries in 2015. If that number does come under $18 million, the Chiefs would be able to keep Smith for an additional year below his reported asking price. By that time, Kansas City could know what they have in 2014 fifth-round draft pick Aaron Murray or be ready to find another young, cheap quarterback in the draft.

If Smith really does want Cutler money in his next deal, he might have to settle for taking the Cutler structure as well. Agreeing to get short-term guaranteed money up front and allowing de facto club options afterwards could be the only way Smith ends up with the impression of a long term deal.