Is Alex Smith Worth $18 Million a Season?


Earlier today there was some discussion about Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs negotiations being pretty much at a standstill due to Smith believing he should be paid upwards of $18 million a season. This figure should come as no surprise to those who listen to the podcast or follow my Twitter feed as I’ve mentioned that number many times in the past. Smith was basically considered a bust for the first six or seven years or his career and little more than a game manager at his best, but the marketplace puts a premium on QB play and there is little mid tier market that exists at the position anymore.

It was not that long ago that the QB market was kind of filled with a few tiers of players. At the top tier you had Drew Brees and Peyton Manning making around $20 million. Following that grouping was Matt Schaub and Mike Vick in the $16 million range. A step down from there were players like Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Mark Sanchez in the $13 million range. In between it all you had the outdated contracts or Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger that had set the market a few years back.

Slowly that mid tier of Vick and Schaub through Sanchez evaporated. The new NFL has essentially divided the QB position into high paid veterans and rookies. Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Joe Flacco all make over $20 million a season. The low floor was set when Tony Romo, a statistical gem but with a lack of success, made $18 million a season in a new contract signed in 2013. Matt Stafford, a former number 1 overall pick, signed for about $17.7 million. From there you drop all the way down to Smith at $9.3 million and Palmer at $8 million to get a recent reference point (Tom Brady took unique $11.4 million a year deal that won’t be applicable to anyone else).  After that it becomes rookie ball and hanger ons.

My assumption last season was that Jay Cutler of the Bears would be the player to re-define that mid tier contract in the $15-$16 million range. Cutler was a classic player to fit that mold. He was talented and had that draft pedigree but there were flaws which never saw the talent turn into stats or incredibly productive team performance. He was the type of player a contending team would never give up on, but probably not the type of player you build around.

Somehow he ended up surpassing Romo in annual value at $18.1 million a season. That should have sent shockwaves around front offices in the NFL because it signaled that talented veterans were going to get paid at a very high level moving forward. It opened the door for Smith, who had been a bargain the last two seasons, to really reach for the stars in contract talks.

Here are how Romo, Cutler, and Smith stack up in some key categories. Please note that these stats are three year averages and are for the seasons leading up to the extension, meaning 2010-2012 for Romo and 2011-2013 for the other two.

Win %44.7%61.1%74.4%
Comp %66.4%59.9%62.7%

Outside of age and record it is difficult to see any manner in which Cutler compared favorably to Romo. In fact he was outdistanced by Romo in every other category. Smith and Cutler are certainly comparable players. Cutler is going to throw for more yards but that comes with a far higher risk than Smith, who is not nearly as turnover prone. That probably intensifies the game manager label for Smith, but you are also paying for more games when you get Smith. Though the Bears did not sign a pricey backup for Cutler, most teams would consider signing a higher priced backup due to the injury history. Dallas did that with Kyle Orton in the event Romo had another bad injury. Smith has been durable.

Turning to more advanced metrics which are provided by Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, Advanced Football Analytics, Pro Football Reference and ESPN we get the following:

Total QBR65.657.555.4
PFF Pass13.34.477.33
Air Yards/Comp6.617.45.76
Avg. YAC5.024.665.40

Even moreso than traditional numbers, these categories are dominated by Romo. What Cutler did besides being younger than Romo to warrant a similar contract is hard to imagine. In these categories Smith would be considered a bit superior to Cutler. Cutler’s main strength is that he throws the ball further down the field than Smith. The YAC is not as strong for Cutler, but he would seem more reliable in getting yards without help compared to the others.

Regardless of how you look at the numbers I think it is clear that Smith has a strong argument to match or slightly exceed Cutler’s salary. Smith is one year younger and in the last three seasons been much more successful. While some of Smith’s wins are attributed to being on an excellent team in San Francisco he should benefit greatly from his trade to Kansas City where the team went from worst in the NFL to a double digit win team with Smith at QB. It has marked three straight years that his teams have gone to the playoffs.

Kansas City’s salary cap situation may make things difficult if Smith signs a Cutler size contract. Their salary cap is incredibly tight and it may require a contract with heavy prorated bonus money. The Bears signed Cutler on terms they wanted. The Chiefs probably can not do that with Smith. If they are not sold on Smith at these numbers then its best to hold off before doing a contract even if, in the long run, it makes the cap numbers more difficult to manage. If they still believe that Smith is a game manager that has been lucky by circumstance the last few years then they are better off waiting on a new contract. If things go poorly for him this year they will reap the benefits down the line. This was one of the mistakes Houston made when they extended Schaub a season too early only to regret the decision before the ink even dried on the contract.

Realistically it is hard to believe that Smith could increase his value that much more by winning a championship.  The current low value player who received the salary boost from a Super Bowl win is Joe Flacco at $20.1 million. Flacco was 28 when he signed his contract, three years younger than Smith will be if his contract expires. So you are not looking at a difference of $4-5 million per year if he wins as was the case with Flacco.

The bigger risk for the Chiefs in waiting is what happens with the turnover from the 2004 QB draft class, all of whom are in situations that likely will require extensions by the 2015 season. Manning, Roethlisberger, and Rivers are all playing on contracts that really have no valid place in the market.  They only have one more year of NFL experience than Smith and could be comparison points for him. If they all end up over $20 million it could push the value for Smith, even if he has a similar season as he had in 2013. That could also benefit the Chiefs if those contracts do not surpass the $20 million barrier and barely surpass the Cutler contract. Manning and Roethlisberger have more championships and ties to their cities while Rivers is going to be a much stronger statistical performer than Smith.  Having a strong understanding of where those contracts could be headed might be important in the Chiefs decision making process.

But the $18 million asking price is not outlandish based on what Smith has done the last few seasons. It’s a valid asking price given the Cutler contract and will likely be around what Smith earns from the Chiefs or another team in the NFL. We’ll see how it plays out over the summer.




  • PhataLerror

    The statistical comparisons were nice, but I always find that so-called “advanced metrics” do a very poor job of differentiating between players working with different personnel. Why did Jamaal Charles have a career year after Alex Smith arrived in Kansas City? Why did Frank Gore’s yards per touch plummet to 4.28 after Colin Kaepernick was handed the reins of the offense in 2012 when it had been 4.93 for the duration of Smith’s quarterbacking under Jim Harbaugh? The answer is the same for both questions: Smith opened up the box because he is a competent passer at every level.

    The myth is that Smith couldn’t succeed outside of a run-first system. The truth is that Smith’s successor hasn’t had long-term success outside of a run-first system, and the truth is that Smith was very capable when the Chiefs’ number one runningback was knocked out of the 2013 Wild Card Playoff.

    Regardless of Smith’s skill, it’s never a good thing when too much money gets diverted to a quarterback. You need to be able to afford offensive linemen, a quality skill player or two on offense, and a solid defense. Hopefully the Chiefs will settle on a guarantee-heavy contract not too much unlike Tom Brady’s. Smith has proved he can be reliable when supported by a quality coach and a functional offensive supporting cast.

    • Chris

      Charles had the worst YPC average of his career. He caught a ton more passes because Smith loves to dump the ball off. Touchdowns tend to be random but his increased total was due in part to them not having any other real offensive weapons.

      Gore had a 4.3 YPC average in 2011 when Smith played the full season. He also just turned 30 and the o-line didn’t play nearly as well as it did in 2012 (according to PFF) so I don’t see how his decline has anything to do with not having Smith. The funny thing is that the box didn’t open with Smith, it was actually the opposite because his arm strength is average and his deep accuracy is poor. The box was only stacked against the 49ers last season in games where they bascially had Anquan Boldin (not a deep threat) and nobody else.

      I don’t know about the supposed myth you’re talking about, but Smith is basically the definition of an average QB. If you surround him with talented players, you can win games and he won’t hurt. He’s never going to be a main reason your team or offense succeeds.

      • PhataLerror

        “The funny thing is that the box didn’t open with Smith, it was actually the opposite because his arm strength is average and his deep accuracy is poor. The box was only stacked against the 49ers last season in games where they bascially had Anquan Boldin (not a deep threat) and nobody else.”

        Is your evidence based on your conclusion that ‘Smith’s arm strength is average and his deep accuracy is poor’? Because according to, Smith’s offense saw eight-man fronts almost ten percent less frequently than Kaepernick’s did in 2012, and I know for a fact that the most frequently touted praises for Kaepernick over Smith were his “arm strength” and “deep ball”. Being able to throw a bullet or being able to fire a ball deep downfield has no direct correlation to eight-man boxes.

        Statistics > Stereotypes.

        • Chris

          Those stats are a small sample for each QB. Not to mention, the only teams they both faced that season were Seattle and Arizona. If you want to use those stats to prove something beyond correlation, you’d have to look at each team’s individual strengths and weaknesses. Some of the teams Kaepernick faced may have had stronger secondaries so they felt more confident in “stacking the box”. We don’t know. Teams also had very minimal amounts of film on Kaepernick and likely wanted to force him to beat them with his arm like he did against Chicago and New England. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s an argument that can be made.

          Statistics are valuable but using them to assume a fact, and using them in misleading ways or assuming that correlation = causation is just as bad as a stereotype.

    • Pete Johnson

      Why did Jamaal Charles have a career year? Could be random variance or coincidence, who knows. He also had a “career year” in 2010 long before Alex Smith arrived. Yeah he had 12TD’s last year, possibly the most high variance stat there is in the game, it means nothing.

      Why did Frank Gore’s YPT drop after Smith left? Well that probably had something to do with the fact he turned 30 and the numbers you cited were in his peak years. If you thought his production was down last year just wait until this year playing at 31….there will be a precipitous drop off.

      The fact of the matter is for SEVEN YEARS Smith sucked and was flirting with bust label. If you can find me one of those guys who all of the sudden became an elite QB talent near 30 go ahead. Smith is an average QB who won’t lose you games but probably won’t win you many with his arm either.

      he is the perfect example of a “middle tier” guy who Jason mentioned don’t really exist much these days.

      • PhataLerror

        “Why did Jamaal Charles have a career year? Could be random variance or coincidence, who knows. He also had a “career year” in 2010 long before Alex Smith arrived. Yeah he had 12TD’s last year, possibly the most high variance stat there is in the game, it means nothing.”

        Did you know that none of Jamaal Charles’ touchdowns in 2012 came on a snap inside the 10-yard line, and only two came on snaps from inside the opponent’s red zone? And that Jamaal Charles was the king of the true “high variance stat” (i.e. “The Big Play”) in 2012 when he scored more touchdowns from snaps taken inside the Chiefs’ own red zone? If you want to know why Charles’ yards per carry dropped in 2013 from 2012, it was because in the process of having to respect anyone besides Jamaal Charles as an offensive threat, players in the secondary were in position to make touchdown-saving tackles. In 2013, Charles scored on 14 plays from scrimmage inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.

        If we’re going to praise garbage yardage, Charles’ 2012 campaign was great, even though he only got first downs on 22.8% of his touches. Charles’ 2013 campaign saw that number improve to over 31.6%. I’m not going to argue with you about why he’s not better than his 2010 form when it requires a comparison of his pre- and post-ACL tear form.

        If you want to argue that Frank Gore’s decline is related to aging rather than supporting cast and scheme, it should be noted that Kendall Hunter’s production was better with Smith on the field than with Kaepernick by 0.3 yards per touch, and Kaepernick had the benefit of working with a Hunter that was familiar with the 49ers’ offensive schemes rather than a rookie with a late start to the year thanks to a league-imposed lockout. And certainly it matters that Hunter had an achilles tear (just as Charles had an ACL tear), but the argument stands that more contributed to Gore’s production woes than just Father Time. If you’re an aging back suddenly seeing eight-man fronts with increased frequency because your quarterback is being challenged to throw into secondaries, your yards per touch will inevitably tank.

  • mike jones

    Romo’s YPA is off the charts…

  • NW86

    The thing is that while Romo and Cutler both got “annual values” over $18M, they were both team-friendly structures without a huge amount of guarantees. Romo’s was a 5 year extension tacked onto a contract with I think 2 years left on it – I don’t have the numbers in front of me but I would guess that the total 7 year value averaged less than $18M. Even if it didn’t, we could easily throw out the last 2 years of it, when he is scheduled for $20M/season when he will be pushing 40. We all know that he will never see that money, and it is only there so the Cowboys can spread out his bonus proration and so Romo can say he has a higher average annual value.
    Cutler’s deal is the same way – the last 2 years are just dummy years that raise the average, which he will never see.
    I suppose that if Smith wants to structure a contract in a similar way, with a couple of high priced, fake dummy years on the end to bring up his average annual value, he could get to the $18M number. But in terms of actual value over say 4 years, I would think the best he will do is $16M/yr or so.

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