Until it is answered, the most persistent and biggest looming question surrounding the Chiefs will be the contract status of quarterback Alex Smith.
Nov 17, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) on the sidelines late in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
With Smith preparing the entering the final year of his current contract, virtually every Chiefs practice and media interview seems to touch on Smith and whether he will re-sign with the team beyond 2014. The release of cornerback Brandon Flowers only fuels more speculation, with the move freeing up valuable cap space to offer.
It’s a tough question to answer. If the Chiefs were to let Smith enter the free agent market in 2015, he would be one of the biggest veteran free-agent quarterbacks to hit the market in the last decade. Among the 20 highest paid active quarterbacks in the NFL, only Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints and Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos were acquired by their current teams through free agency.
Both Brees and Manning had question marks. Brees suffered a torn labrum in his final game with the Chargers in the 2005 season, and the Dolphins declined to make a bid for Brees due to the injury. Manning signed with the Broncos in 2012 after missing the previous season with the Colts following neck surgery.
Among active quarterbacks with at least 50 wins as a starter, only Brees, Manning, Matt Hasselbeck and Michael Vick signed with their current teams as a veteran free agent. Only Brees was younger than Smith when he became a free agent.
How rare would Smith hitting the free agent market be? No quarterback in NFL history with 50 or more career wins in regular and postseason combined by his age 30 season has ever left his team via free agency at age 30 or earlier. Smith has 50 exactly career wins and just turned 30 in May. Smith would arguably be the youngest and winningest quarterback to ever hit the open market.
Can the Chiefs let a quarterback of Smith’s accomplishments walk way? Can they afford to pay him? Time will tell, but also telling are the contracts of his peers.
According to Spotrac.com, there are five $20 million quarterbacks in the making year — players who have contracts paying them an average of $20 million of more per season: Aaron Rodgers, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Brees. Three of the five have won Super Bowl titles, with only Ryan failing to lead his team to significant playoff success.
The next group averaging between $12 to $20 million per season is headed by Peyton Manning, and also includes Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Sam Bradford and Ben Roethlisberger. This group has accounted for seven Super Bowl titles and 53 playoff wins with a post season winning percentage of .589.
It’s also a hit-and-miss group, with much of the success belonging to Manning, Brady and Roethlisherger, while Romo, Stafford and Rivers have yet to take their teams to the Super Bowl. Bradford’s contract is the last relic of the league’s old collective bargaining agreement when top draft picks were paid like seasoned veterans.
Smith is next in line, in more ways than one. The average salary of his current contract is 15th in the NFL. Smith also ranks 15th in the NFL in career wins among active quarterbacks. Only three quarterbacks with more wins are playing under contracts paying them less per season than Smith — Arizona starter Carson Palmer and backups Hasselbeck and Vick.
If Smith signs an extension with the Chiefs, he will move up the list. The question is how far.
The case for Smith often presented as a benchmark for negotiations is Cutler’s contract with the Chicago Bears. Cutler’s extension, which kicks in this season, is a seven-year, $126.7 million deal with $54 million guaranteed and an average of $18.1 million per season.
Cutler’s contract is highly unusual in that there was no signing bonus. Bonuses are typically used to provide the player with money upfront, which is then prorated over the length of the contract for salary cap purposes. This allows the team to spread the cost of the bonus over multiple seasons instead of taking a large hit at once.
Instead, the guaranteed money in Cutler’s contract is entirely guaranteed salary for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons. Following the 2016 season, the Bears could release Cutler without any salary cap implications. For all intents and purposes, Cutler’s deal is a three-year contract, but the Bears can continue to keep Cutler through 2020 if they want.
Cutler’s contract is not necessarily a model the Chiefs can follow with Smith. The Bears had the salary cap room to pay Cutler more money over the next three seasons. The Chiefs do not have substantial cap relief coming in 2015, and the team also must address the free agency of linebacker Justin Houston, who is in the last season of his rookie contract.
From a management perspective, the comparable example might be Rivers’ contract with the Chargers. Rivers’ current deal totals $95.4 million over seven years with $44 million guaranteed and an average salary of $13.6 million. Rivers has proven more durable than Smith, starting 128 consecutive regular-season games since becoming a starter in 2006. Smith has started just 95 games since 2005. Rivers also has a 4-5 record as a starter in the playoffs, compared to Smith’s 1-2 mark [Publisher's note: Smith's postseason record was originally published as 1-3. It is adjusted to reflect the correct 1-2 postseason record]. Rivers has a career quarterback rating of 96.0 compared to Smith’s 81.0
The average contract among players with more career wins than Smith totals $102.6 million for six years with $42.2 million guaranteed and an average salary of $17.7 million per season. A deal like that would make Smith the ninth highest paid quarterback in the league in average salary per season, just behind Cutler and Romo and just ahead of Stafford and Eli Manning.
Excluding the $20 million per season quarterbacks — it’s difficult to argue Smith belongs in that exclusive club — the nine quarterback contracts paying more than Smith’s current deal range from Roethlisberger’s $12.5 million average per season to Peyton Manning’s $19.2 million. The median of this group is Eli Manning, earning $16.25 million per season with $35 million guaranteed over six seasons.
What does this tell us that a reasonable contract extension for Smith could like? Stafford might be the most comparable for Smith. Stafford’s extension actually kicks in for the 2015 season, and pays him $53 million over three years with $41.5 million guaranteed and an average salary of $17.67 million per season.
The one consistency between the Stafford and Cutler contract is the money for three seasons. Cutler is guaranteed $54 for three years, Stafford will make $53 million over three years with the $41.5 million guaranteed. It’s reasonable to expect a Smith extension to fall in this range over the first three years. Any money in the contract beyond three years will likely not be guaranteed, in essence making any Smith extension a three-year contract.
There are other X-factors to consider as well. If the Chiefs are unwilling to commit to Smith through the 2017 season, they could use the franchise tag on Smith and mull their options with this year’s fifth-round draft pick Aaron Murray, backups Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray, another quarterback in next year’s draft or via trade or free agency. If the Chiefs choose to let Smith play under the final year of his contract and use the franchise tag next year, the salary will likely be in excess of this year’s franchise tag value of $16.192 million — or comparable to what Smith would likely make anyway under a three-year contact in the $45-50 million range.
The release of Flowers does give the Chiefs more salary cap flexible in the short-term future. Smith’s $7.5 million salary for 2014 along with a $500,000 incentive bonus gives Smith a cap and cash value of $8 million this season. With the departure of Flowers, the Chiefs have a little more than $10 million in cap space. That provides the flexibility for the Chiefs to renegotiate Smith’s current contract and extend it as well as sign him to an extension that kicks in next season.
It’s difficult to determine what Smith’s value on the open market might be because quarterback’s of his age and performance historically do not reach free agency.
Time will tell what the Chiefs — and Smith — elect to do.
Top 15 NFL Highest Paid Quarterbacks Ranked by Average Salary
||2014 Base Salary