Can the Chiefs Get More from Passing Game with Alex Smith at Quarterback?

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystJune 26, 2015

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith throws during an NFL football organized team activity Thursday, June 11, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The Kansas City Chiefs want to get more from the passing game in 2015. That much is obvious after signing free-agent wide receiver Jeremy Maclin in the first round and selecting athletic receiver Chris Conley in the third round. Along with tight end Travis Kelce and slot receiver De’Anthony Thomas, quarterback Alex Smith now has weapons as he has never had before.

Based on the receiving talent alone, there should be little doubt that the Chiefs will get much more from their passing game. Based on Smith’s history of conservative play, he may have been the limiting factor.

For the Chiefs to get more from the passing game, the receiving talent will have to do most of the heavy lifting. It would be madness to expect Smith to change his style significantly after a decade in the league.

The Limiting Factor

Over the last six years, Smith has averaged a 62.4 percent completion percentage in 75 starts. Of the nine quarterbacks to have started as many or more games during the same period, Smith ranks ninth in completion percentage, yards per game, yards per attempt and Pro-Football-Reference.com’s adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) statistic.

Put simply, Smith’s play is the baseline of acceptable play from a quarterback at the NFL level. Last season, Smith finished 17th in ANY/A. Just above Smith: Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan. Just below him: Brian Hoyer, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton.

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What Smith doesn’t get enough credit for is his remarkable consistency. He was also 17th in 2013 in ANY/A, 15th in 2011 and 20th in 2010 and 2009. He did finish 10th in ANY/A in 2012 before losing his job to Colin Kaepernick, who finished second. His ESPN Total QBR rating has been 49.4 in each of the last two seasons.

Smith is also consistently conservative. He doesn’t throw deep and with regularity, but last season wasn’t the norm for him. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith attempted just 5.2 percent of his passes over 20 yards. That’s the lowest in the league by a whopping 3.8 percent. Over the last couple of years, it’s been around eight or nine percent.

At times, he’s been up around 10 percent of his passes thrown over 20 yards. With the talent he has now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that again. At worst, we’ll likely see a return to around eight percent.

Projecting Weapons

Since Smith has been so consistent over such a long period, it’s actually easy to see how and where the offense can grow around him. For starters, Smith loves throwing to tight ends and running backs.

Smith targeted San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis more than any other receiver when he was there. Davis has hauled in an astounding 24.6 percent on the touchdowns Smith has thrown, 14.1 percent of his passing yards and 12 percent of his completions. Those numbers have obviously been on the decline since he arrived in Kansas City two years ago as well.

Alex Smith's Favorite Targets
PlayersTargetsReceptions% CaughtYardsTD
Vernon Davis36122963.4%293330
Michael Crabtree32119861.7%238511
Frank Gore28319067.1%15285
Dwayne Bowe19311459.1%13965
Jamaal Charles16010867.5%97612
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/

Kelce is already in the top 10 of Smith’s favorite targets in most categories. Smith also loved throwing to tight end Delanie Walker in San Francisco. Tight ends appeal to Smith’s nature as a quarterback, which is conservative to a fault.  

Running backs Frank Gore and Jamaal Charles are third and fifth on Smith’s list of targets and completions. Charles has caught 12 touchdowns from Smith, one more than Michael Crabtree has and second most of any player.

Remarkably, Smith has completed about 67 percent of his passes to Gore and Charles. He’s similarly consistent throwing to his No. 1 receivers, with a 61.7 percent completion rate to Crabtree and 59.1 percent to Dwayne Bowe.

Both Bowe and Crabtree have averaged around 12 yards per reception from Smith. Maclin averaged 15.5 per reception last year and 13.9 in his career. His low was 12.4 yards per reception in 2012 for the Eagles, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid’s final season at Philadelphia as head coach.

The notable difference was his production after the catch in 2014. Last year, Maclin averaged 6.0 yards per reception after the catch, but so did his rookie teammate Jordan Matthews. In 2013, DeSean Jackson averaged 6.0 yards per reception in the same offense.

Maclin's Production
YearsHead CoachWR OptionYards/Rec/Yards After Catch/Rec.
2014Chip Kelly115.56.0
2012Andy Reid1-212.74.2
2011Andy Reid1-213.64.4
2010Andy Reid1-213.83.9
2009Andy Reid213.94.5
https://www.profootballfocus.com/

In Reid’s offense, Maclin’s averages were 4.2, 4.4, 3.9 and 4.5 yards after the catch. If we split the difference, assuming part of the difference was Maclin being the No. 2 receiver in Reid’s offense and the other due to offensive differences, a decent projection for Maclin would be around 5.2 yards after the catch for the Chiefs in 2015.

Based on his average of about 70 receptions per 16 games under Reid at roughly 14-15 yards per reception, Maclin has a very real shot at becoming Smith’s first 1,000-yard wide receiver if he stays healthy. It would probably be foolish to expect Maclin to better the 1,318 yards he had last season with Kelce and Charles there to gobble up any added opportunities.

You have to love the fit of Maclin in the offense considering his familiarity with Reid and his style of play considering Smith’s tendencies. It’s roughly 200-300 more passing yards on marginally more receptions than Bowe has been putting up with Smith over the last two years. That’s a notable uptick in production.

You may not have to temper any expectations for Kelce, who had an incredible 2014 season. He averaged 7.5 yards per reception after the catch and caught a ridiculous 82.7 percent of his targets, both tops in the league. This production is a feature of Reid’s offense that hasn’t been talked about enough.

Reid's Tight Ends After the Catch
PlayerYearYards/RecYards After Catch/Rec.YAC/Rec. Rank
Kelce201412.97.51
Celek201212.05.92
Celek201113.18.01
Celek201012.25.99
Celek200912.85.85
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/

Brent Celek averaged 8.0 yards after the catch per reception and 13.1 yards per catch in 2011 under Reid. Creating operating space for his tight ends is something Reid does well.

The fact that he now has two receivers who can pull safety coverage, Kelce’s production should continue to skyrocket. Factor in Smith’s love for throwing to the tight end and you have major production potential. If Kelce stays healthy, he too has a chance at a 1,000-yard season.

Considering how little production Smith’s No. 2 receiver has had historically, it’s a lot harder to be high on Conley or Thomas. Conley’s lack of college production and the typical rookie struggles won’t help him either.

Conley and Thomas could be nothing more than ancillary options. Charles will still be heavily involved in the passing game as well, and there are only so many passes to go around.

Charles is probably good for 300-400 receiving yards every year. In 2013, the Chiefs used him more, but now they don’t have to overwork him. No major changes should be expected unless there is an injury.

Putting it Together

Even with Smith’s limitations, the Chiefs have figured out a way to get more production from the passing game. That should be welcome news for Chiefs fans as long as expectations are reasonable given Smith is the starting quarterback.  

There will be improvement with Maclin, but a huge jump in production seems unlikely considering other options that Smith favors. There are also more options now, so the Chiefs won’t need Maclin to do as much of the work. In fact, Maclin and Kelce have a mutually beneficial relationship on the field, but only one player can get the ball on a given play.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Smith’s game just has never allowed more than one wide receiver to produce significant numbers. Conley’s best usage will be as a decoy and blocker rather than a big part of the offense. A larger role for Conley or Thomas would likely offset the production of Kelce, Charles or Maclin.

From a yardage perspective, the last two years have been the most productive of Smith’s career. Last year, he completed 65.3 percent of his passes—a career high. In 2013, his 3,313 passing yards and 23 touchdowns were both career highs.

If his weapons stay healthy, Smith could be in for another career year, but a 4,000-yard passing season with a 1,400-yard receiver remains a pipe dream. Expect a lot more of the same from Smith and a lot more from his weapons.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com and Pro Football Focus