Commentary

Alex Smith holds all the cards

Strong '13 finish, lackluster supporting cast give QB leverage in contract talks

Originally Published: May 24, 2014
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith should be feeling pretty good about the possibilities in his new contract negotiations. He's coming off the best season of his nine-year career, one that ended with a Pro Bowl appearance. He just led the Chiefs to the playoffs only one year after they produced the league's worst record. More than anything, his own team is giving his agent, Tom Condon, plenty of valuable cards to play in this process. In a world where leverage means everything, Smith is flush with it as the Chiefs determine his future.

Even though it's still a long way from September, Kansas City has done little to improve its mediocre passing game. The draft went by without the team selecting a receiver; free-agent target Emmanuel Sanders decided to sign in Denver instead of Kansas City; and shifty multipurpose back Dexter McCluster bolted for Tennessee when free agency began earlier this offseason. The most encouraging addition to the Chiefs' offense in the past few months: speedy Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas, the team's fourth-round pick in this year's draft and McCluster's likely successor. After that, Smith is looking at a supporting cast that looks very much like the one that lacked big plays at the wide receiver position in 2013.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsAlex Smith's first year in K.C. produced an 11-win season and his first Pro Bowl appearance.

Unless the Chiefs find another consistent wide receiver between now and the start of the regular season, they will rely heavily on Smith's playmaking ability this fall. Even with Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles still in his prime, that's a heck of an expectation to set on a quarterback who isn't going to be confused with Tom Brady. Everything the Chiefs have done this offseason indicates they are putting even more faith in Smith than when they traded two second-round picks to San Francisco last offseason to acquire him. That also means Condon should be making some sizable demands of the Chiefs as this franchise determines how to maintain the momentum that evolved from last year's postseason appearance.

This isn't to say Smith needs to be paid in the neighborhood of $18 to $20 million, which is the going rate for elite quarterbacks. What he does deserve is a sizable bump over the $7.5 million he is scheduled to make this fall.

At the very least, it seems likely that Smith's salary should double over that amount when his next deal is established. It would be fair compensation for the way he stabilized Kansas City's offense last season -- he threw for a career-high 3,313 yards and 23 touchdowns with only seven interceptions -- and it would give the Chiefs a little more wiggle room to keep beefing up their roster.

It's difficult to see Smith trying to break the bank on the next deal because he's already been in the NFL long enough to see the gamble in doing just that. The main reason Smith has found success in his career after five years of struggling in San Francisco is that he ultimately began lining up with better talent around him. He helped the 49ers reach the playoffs in 2011 because head coach Jim Harbaugh arrived and the defense became dominant. Last season, he enjoyed a similar campaign by having head coach Andy Reid in his corner along with Charles and a defense that pummeled foes through the first nine games before imploding.

Smith's biggest strength always has been a desire to play within himself. He doesn't want to kill his team with a gunslinger mentality. Yet it's hard to argue that the Chiefs' offensive improvement in the second half of last season didn't have a lot to do with his ability to raise his game to a higher level. The Chiefs averaged 36.3 points in the last six contests that Smith started in 2013 -- he didn't play in the season finale against San Diego -- and suddenly all those questions about his playmaking skills started to fade.

It now appears that the Chiefs feel quite comfortable in believing Smith can start next season with similar offensive firepower. Given how they've approached Smith's supporting cast, there can be no other conclusion. They still have inconsistent speedster Donnie Avery at wide receiver and although there have been whispers about the growth of A.J. Jenkins, a former first-round pick of the 49ers, it still remains to be seen whether he can be a reliable NFL wideout. Tight end is just as questionable, as the Chiefs still have a decent veteran in Anthony Fasano and an unknown commodity in second-year player Travis Kelce, who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury.

The Chiefs receivers were so pedestrian last season that their best talent at the position, Dwayne Bowe, caught all of 57 passes (and this was a few months after he signed a $56 million deal). It's even less likely that those numbers will improve unless this current cast makes sizable strides. That leaves Smith in the same position he was in last year, trying to win by making the most of smart game plans and limiting turnovers. It's as if the Chiefs like the idea of their quarterback turning lemons into lemonade, specifically when it comes to their passing game.

You can bet all these topics are being discussed when Condon chats with Chiefs general manager John Dorsey about this next contract. But Dorsey could counter by mentioning the team's addition of fifth-round pick Aaron Murray, a quarterback many thought could go higher in the draft, as the team's signal-caller of the future should Smith walk. The Chiefs understand that Smith doesn't want to go into this season without a new deal in hand because there's always the risk that he could sustain an injury. On the flip side, Smith knows that if he enjoys another strong year and remains healthy, the open market could be very kind to a quarterback who just turned 30 and is playing the best ball of his career.

If Smith is smart -- and he is as bright as they come -- he'll see that he already has made enough money in his career that he doesn't need to push for a contract that compromises his current team. He surely doesn't want to put himself in the same situation as Baltimore's Joe Flacco, who had a rough season after signing a $120.6 million contract just months after helping the Ravens win the Super Bowl. Instead, all Smith has to do is let Condon spell out his case the next few months. Given how the Chiefs have handled things thus far, his argument will only grow stronger as we move closer to the season.

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