The Kansas City Chiefs made one of the biggest moves of the offseason by trading a 2013 second-round pick and a conditional 2014 third-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for quarterback Alex Smith. The third-round pick next year also turns into a second-round pick if the Chiefs win eight or more games in 2013.
It was a steep price for Smith, but the Chiefs were a disaster under center with Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn splitting the duties last season, and the draft wasn’t bursting with talented quarterbacks.
Now, the Chiefs have to find out if Smith can really become their franchise quarterback, or if he simply buys the new regime in Kansas City time to find one. Some would argue that Smith will have a hard time being as good with the Chiefs as he's been in San Francisco for the last two years.
Defining a Franchise Quarterback
Statistics for evaluating quarterbacks can be useful if you know which ones to evaluate. Bleacher Report NFC East lead writer Brad Gagnon took a look at the metrics that matter most when evaluating quarterbacks and settled on ESPN’s QBR, Football Outsiders’ DVOA and DYAR, Advanced NFL Stats’ WPA/EPA and touchdown percentage/interception percentage.
There are plenty of effective ways to evaluate a quarterback with metrics, but as Brad clearly explains, none of them are perfect. There are first-, second- and third level-metrics that can be used, so it’s a bit like piecing together a puzzle.
The one metric that is easily calculated and tries to account for yards, sacks, attempts, touchdowns and interceptions is called adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
It’s not a perfect statistic, but it at least accounts for all the key areas of quarterback performance. I think it’s a good statistic for trying to peg potential franchise quarterbacks.
It’s probably safe to say that quarterbacks consistently in the top 10 are franchise quarterbacks, so we’ll make this the qualifying level. Since Smith entered the league in 2005, the average ANY/A of the 10th-best quarterback in ANY/A has been 6.49.
Quarterbacks are also getting better, as ANY/A for the 10th-best quarterback is generally trending up. It’s worth noting that Smith himself was the 10th-best quarterback in ANY/A in 2012, so you could make a case that he has achieved franchise-quarterback status for at least for one year.
Last season was the first season in which Smith’s ANY/A eclipsed our threshold of 6.49, with a healthy 6.76. Smith’s 6.13 ANY/A in 2011 was 15th in the league, two spots ahead this year’s Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco.
If Smith simply produces like he did the last two years in San Francisco, he could be considered a fringe franchise quarterback. Smith completed 64.3 percent of his passes and averaged 195 passing yards per game (projects to 3,120 in a full season) with a 4.5 percent touchdown rate and 1.5 percent interception rate over the last two years.
Smith has also been sacked 68 sacks times since the start of 2011 and lost 400 yards despite a great offensive line. Smith’s sack rate over the last two years is 9.3 percent and his average loss is 5.9 yards. Sacks should be figured into the equation.
Smith has averaged 26.5 passes per game over the last two years, and only one team averaged fewer attempts per game in 2012. Assuming production and volume of attempts stay consistent with the past two years, Smith would end up with 424 attempts for 3,120 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Smith would also get sacked 39 times for a loss of 230 yards, and his ANY/A would be 6.42. That's really close to our threshold for a franchise quarterback based on ANY/A, but a little short of the standard. It's certainly close enough to make us think that maybe he has the potential.
We're Getting There
For the last two years, Smith has been playing at a fringe franchise-quarterback level, right at the bottom of the top 10. If Smith ends up being a bridge to the next quarterback for the Chiefs, he’s probably the best bridge the Chiefs could’ve hoped for considering the circumstances.
However, to become a bona fide franchise quarterback, Smith is going to have to do even more. The challenge for Smith is going to be maintaining his performance level if asked to throw a lot more passes.
New head coach Andy Reid’s offenses have averaged 579 passing attempts since 2005. That’s 36.2 passing attempts per game—about 10 more than Smith has averaged per game for the last two years.
If Smith can maintain the same level of production from the last two years while attempting 10 more passes per game, his ANY/A would be 7.05. This number would be better than that of franchise quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson.
Unfortunately, we just can’t assume that Smith is going to be able to produce the same in an offense that requires him to throw more passes, especially since he struggled when throwing more prior to 2011.
Smith had a running game to protect him in San Francisco for the last two years, and it remains to be seen if he really needed it or if the light just came on for him. Jamaal Charles should be able to protect Smith in Kansas City in the same way, if the Chiefs choose to go that route.
Putting It Together
We know that Smith has performed well over the last two years and his numbers were good enough to put him at the fringe of being called a franchise quarterback. If Smith continues to improve and is used similarly to the way he was the last two years in San Francisco, there’s reason to believe he could be a franchise-type quarterback.
However, if the Chiefs change the way Smith is used, as they're expected to do, it’s hard to know how that’s going to impact his performance. Some people assume that the change would be for the worst, but Reid is known for putting quarterbacks in a position to be successful.
One thing Reid likes to do is use the short-passing game like the running game. These quick strikes help manage down and distance and can help set up deeper pass plays.
Take for example this simple pass from quarterback Nick Foles to slot receiver Jason Avant for a decent gain of six yards on first down from Week 16 last year. There’s nothing special about this play, but it highlights how Reid gives his quarterbacks defined reads that can help them get easy completions and yardage.
The outside receiver runs a go route, clearing the flat for Avant. The defense is playing Avant soft and with inside leverage, so getting open is as easy as running to a spot.
Foles takes a quick peek at his first read and pulls the trigger. Had Foles had to come off his first read, there is a dump off to the tight end available for a couple yards.
Avant secures the catch and tries to get to the corner, but he’s pushed out of bounds after a six-yard gain. Had Avant been able to gain a little more separation, he may have been able to slip past the first would-be tackler and for an even bigger gain.
This type of offense plays to Smith’s strengths—in theory. As opposed to creating opportunity for Smith with a powerful running game like the 49ers did, Reid will ask him to create those opportunities on his own with the short-to-intermediate passing game.
Maybe the last two years of Smith’s production will be a moot point in Reid’s offense, but the skill set seems to be there for him to be successful. So, there are actually two ways Smith can become a franchise quarterback.
Can Alex Smith Become a Franchise Quarterback?
Either Smith continues to progress and the Chiefs use him just like the 49ers did the last two years, or the Chiefs hit the reset button and try to use Smith’s skill set in Reid’s offense. In either case, Smith has a chance.
He’s still really young (29) considering his experience (eight years), but the Chiefs have to wonder if he’ll continue to get better. At some point, Smith is going to hit a ceiling if he hasn’t already.
The Chiefs could probably survive by trying to squeeze every last drop out of Smith by running an offense like the 49ers, but unless they are as good all-around as the 49ers, they aren’t going to make it to the playoffs.
The fear that Smith has tapped out his potential makes the prospect of hitting a reset button appealing. Reid can simply use the raw skills and transferable knowledge Smith has gained to try to make him something more—like a bona fide franchise quarterback.