By Jeff Risdon
Even though the Combine ended on Tuesday, the NFL still managed to produce some headline sports news on Wednesday. The San Francisco 49ers agreed to trade deposed starting quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for the 34th pick in this year’s draft and a conditional pick in 2014.
For the 49ers, this was almost a no-brainer. It’s very awkward and fractious to have the former starter lingering on the roster behind his usurper, particularly when the demoted player can still play. Smith has a $7.5M annual salary along with $3.75M in bonuses that count against the cap over the next two seasons, an astronomical amount to pay a player who ideally never sees the field.
49ers' GM Trent Baalke transformed that liability into a highly valuable draft pick, one that gives San Francisco tremendous leverage and flexibility in April. They can package the picks to move up for a specific target (Tavon Austin? Dee Milliner?), or they can auction off one of the picks to the highest bidder and pick up even more picks to bolster depth. Freeing up cap room gives Baalke a better opportunity to sign free agents like Delanie Walker and Dashon Goldson, or give preemptive extensions to Aldon Smith, Jonathan Goodwin, or even Kaepernick. Rumors are already circulating that the team will attempt to acquire Darrelle Revis, which would put both the trade bounty and the freed up cap room to better use.
The reason I said “almost” a no-brainer and not completely is that there is now a large void behind Colin Kaepernick, and his style of play lends him to taking a lot of hits. The only other QB on the roster is Scott Tolzein, who couldn’t make the Chargers as an undrafted free agent in 2011. San Francisco will have to address their backup QB situation, but there are several options with inexpensive veterans like Drew Stanton, Kellen Clemens, or even former 49er David Carr. They could also use a late-round pick on a developmental long-term backup.
Kansas City upgraded at the most important position on the field. There is no question that Alex Smith is a significantly better player than Matt Cassel, who will go down as one of the biggest busts in professional sports history. Cassel had one season in his four-year tenure in Kansas City where he wasn’t in the bottom third of starting QBs in the league, and he will be dumped shortly. Nobody will trade for Cassel’s contract, which is over $2M more than Smith will get over the next two seasons. He will leave the Chiefs with about $4.5M in dead cap money over that time. The Arrowhead faithful would happily pass the hat to pay that price to make Cassel a distant memory.
The big question is how well Smith will fare with Kansas City. Before Jim Harbaugh came to San Francisco, Smith was much like Cassel, a below-average starter that didn’t make anyone around him better. He was 19-31 as a starter in those five years, making it to 16 games just once because of injuries and ineffectiveness. His TD/INT ratio was 41/53 and his yards per attempt rank the lowest of any QB with at least 25 starts in that time. After Harbaugh’s arrival, Smith blossomed; 19-5-1 as a starter, with 30 TDs and just 10 INTs while boosting his yards per attempt almost two full yards over his career average and dramatically improving his completion percentage in the process.
How much of that is attributable to Harbaugh’s magic, and how much of it was Smith’s own personal development and professional maturation? Kansas City is betting it was predominately the latter. New GM John Dorsey and Head Coach Andy Reid both have experience with later-blossoming quarterbacks. Dorsey was part of the Green Bay regime that took Aaron Rodgers and patiently waited for him to push Brett Favre out the door. Reid scored big by helping Michael Vick resuscitate his fallen career in Philadelphia after watching Donovan McNabb’s sudden and painful decline. In short, both men know untapped potential and both men know when it’s time to give up the ghost on a veteran. Chiefs fans must trust that their collective experience means something here.
In draft terms, this move liberates the Chiefs to take whomever they want at #1. They are no longer beholden to selecting Geno Smith, who may or may not be any better than Alex Smith over the next two years. No one considers Geno Smith the best player in this draft, and some respectable pundits don’t even see Smith as a top 25 talent. But desperation at the QB position made taking Smith at No. 1 almost inevitable. Now the new regime can forge ahead with the player they see as the best overall talent for their goals. It might be Luke Joeckel, the Texas A&M tackle. It could also be Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher, and selecting either of those would allow the team to let free agent incumbent left tackle Braden Albert depart and let some other team overpay for his services. They could opt to bolster the defensive line with a player like Florida’s Sharrif Floyd or Sheldon Richardson from Missouri, both active playmakers with high football IQs and great athleticism up front. They could even shock the world and take Ezekiel Ansah, the raw BYU defensive wunderkind.
Because Alex Smith being the recent vintage is no given, and because both Cassel and backup Brady Quinn will be former Chiefs before Spring Break, the Chiefs are still in the market to draft a quarterback. Trading away the 34th pick takes them out of the running for players in that range like Matt Barkley, Tyler Bray, and probably Ryan Nassib. Here’s a bold prediction: they will use their third round pick in one form or another to take Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson and groom him to be the QB of the future behind Smith.
San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs