Tap the Brakes on Excitement over Alex Smith to the Cleveland Browns

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Tap the Brakes on Excitement over Alex Smith to the Cleveland Browns
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Could this man be the Browns next starting quarterback? Not so fast.

Last week, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said that there will indeed be a competition for the team's starting quarterback job, pitting 2012's starter Brandon Weeden against an unknown person or persons who may or may not be added via free agency.

Also last week, comments made by San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Alex Smith drew the attention of the Cleveland media, after he praised current Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

With the Niners about to shop Smith's services around the league, it seems like perhaps Smith would be a good fit in Cleveland to put the fight to Weeden.

However, there's a lot to consider—about the Browns, about Weeden, about Smith—before we can definitively say that Smith would be the perfect pickup for the Browns this offseason.

The point in drafting Weeden in the first round last year was not to provide competition for the incumbent starter, Colt McCoy—that became evident once McCoy stopped getting even a cursory shot to throw with the first team in training camp. This was Weeden's job from his first day in Cleveland, despite lip service to the contrary by then-team president Mike Holmgren and former head coach Pat Shurmur.

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Colt McCoy lost the starting job in Cleveland for the same reasons that Smith has been criticized throughout his professional career.

The main reason why Weeden got the job without much consideration for McCoy comes down to one thing—arm strength.

McCoy simply wasn't getting the ball down the field effectively and often enough, something that is necessary in a breezy outdoor stadium like the Browns' home. Though it wasn't the only factor in why it was time to make the move away from McCoy, a quarterback's arm is clearly one his most important assets, and if it's not up to par, it's hard to remain a starter.

It's easy to forget that Smith's biggest perceived weakness was his lack of a big arm, especially considering that he averaged eight yards per attempt when he was the Niners' starter in 2012 and 7.1 the year before. Also enticing is the fact that Smith completed 70.2 percent of his passes in his 10 2012 appearances, including 18 of his 19 attempts in Week 8 against the Arizona Cardinals.

Considering Weeden's rookie-year completion percentage was 57.2 and he averaged just 5.9 yards per attempt, Smith looks like a hands-down upgrade. However, a quarterback isn't defined by cherry-picked statistics from a small part of his career. To fully understand what the Browns could be getting into with Smith, we have to look at his total NFL output.

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Smith's success over the previous two years can be traced to Jim Harbaugh becoming the Niners' head coach. Harbaugh worked wonders with Smith, believing in him, and most importantly, providing him with the first true stability of his NFL career. Prior to Harbaugh's hiring, Smith was subjected to a revolving door of coordinators and coaches, and with this instability he wasn't able to develop (a story that Browns fans probably relate to).

Sending him to Cleveland could unearth his earlier issues.

Over the course of Smith's career—which began in 2005—his past two years have been by far his best. In 2010, in pre-Harbaugh days, his completion percentage was 59.6; his low point came in 2007, in which he completed only 48.7 percent of his passes and averaged a mere 4.74 yards per attempt, with a shoulder injury forcing him to miss most of the season.

As a result, Smith's career completion percentage rests at 59.3 and his average yards per attempt is 6.56—not terribly better than Weeden, who again, was a rookie in 2012 and thus expected to have some struggles.

That also doesn't put Smith far off from McCoy's career averages of a 58.3 completion percentage and 6.25 yards per attempt.

That's not to say that the Browns shouldn't or won't pursue Smith once the Niners start putting his contract up for offer—but one must be wary to assume that Smith can come into Cleveland and pick up where he left off in 2012, or even play as he did in 2011.

So much of Smith's success can be attributed to the leadership of Harbaugh; he may need Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski and, of course, his beloved Turner, to work similar magic to get those kinds of results.

In terms of the cost, Smith is certainly within Cleveland's price range. The Browns are expected to be around $48 to $50 million under the salary cap this year, which could easily accommodate both the re-signing of any of their own impending free agents as well as the additions of new ones like Smith.

But if Smith comes in to compete, then he'll need to take a pay cut, which means the Niners wouldn't be able to do a straightforward trade off with the Browns—he'd have to be released and then signed by Cleveland.

Otherwise, the Browns could find themselves in the unenviable situation of having a higher-paid backup quarterback than their starter should Weeden retain the job. Smith is owed a base salary of $7.5 million from the Niners this year and a total of $9.75 million including bonuses; in contrast, Weeden's total 2013 cap hit is estimated to be just over $1.8 million. 

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Alex Smith will cost the Browns quite a bit more than Weeden—which makes no sense if he doesn't win the job.

Though Weeden certainly knows that a competition looms, it doesn't do much for his confidence to know that competition comes against a quarterback owed nearly eight times what he's set to make in the upcoming season.

And if Weeden remains the starter in 2013, that's an awful lot of money to have sitting on the bench in Smith.

Considering the glut of teams who could be looking to make a change at quarterback this year—the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs, to name a few—the 49ers won't likely find themselves in the position of having to release Smith from his contract in order for him to find a home. 

Further, the majority of other interested teams will be looking to bring Smith on as their uncontested starter and willing to pay him the remainder of what he would have otherwise been owed by San Francisco.

For a starter and potential franchise quarterback, Smith's price tag is a relative steal, but for a player contending for a job and who could ultimately become a backup, it doesn't make sense for Cleveland, though they can afford it.

It doesn't make sense for Smith, either, to come to Cleveland and fight for the job if he knows he can go somewhere else and be the starter. The only way his addition to the Browns roster makes sense is if Haslam, Joe Banner and Chudzinski change their mind completely about Weeden and offer Smith the starting job, or if Smith is so enthusiastic about the Browns that he's willing to compete.

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Brandon Weeden will have to fight for his job, but that doesn't mean Smith must be his main competition.

A safer bet is to incorporate the two backup quarterbacks currently on the Browns roster—Thaddeus Lewis, who didn't entirely disappoint in his Week 17 turn as starter against the Pittsburgh Steelers, completing 22 of his 32 passes for 204 yards, a touchdown and an interception and Josh Johnson, who spent a brief time with the Niners and two years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before that. McCoy could also be in the mix, but the lack of discussion of McCoy seems to put him out of the running.

There could also be another free agency addition to compete with Weeden—it seems more likely than the Browns picking up someone to compete for the job in the draft, considering Weeden is in many ways better than every passer in this year's class—but with Lewis and Johnson also in the picture, Smith isn't necessarily who they need to target.

Smith has a lot of upside and is certainly worthy of the attention he's been receiving as of late, plus the attention he's likely to get as the offseason progresses. With the Browns willing to open up their quarterback competition, it only makes sense that Smith's name gets brought up as part of that process.

But from a logistical and financial standpoint, Smith doesn't seem like the best fit. 

 

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