Plenty of people figured that the Chiefs were going to trade Alex Smith this offseason to free up their starting job for 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes. They were half-right. The Chiefs didn't wait for the offseason to make their move, agreeing to a deal Tuesday night to deal Smith to Washington for a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller.
Washington's stunning trade for a new quarterback should reverberate around the league; a half-dozen teams that weren't involved with the deal suddenly saw their offseason plans change or come into focus. The deal (and Smith's subsequent extension) obviously suggest that Washington will be moving on from incumbent quarterback Kirk Cousins, who will hit unrestricted free agency.
Let's break down the winners and losers from this swap, both now and in the offseason to come:
Winner: Alex Smith
There's a huge difference between being a veteran quarterback in free agency and a veteran quarterback on the trade market. As a free agent, Smith would have had plenty of options and could have made a move in the division to the Broncos, who likely would have been the best landing spot for a veteran quarterback given their defense.
Coach Andy Reid wasn't afraid to trade a quarterback inside his own division in the past when he dealt Donovan McNabb to Washington when he was with Philadelphia, but Smith is a much better player at this point of his career than McNabb was back in 2010. The year remaining on his contract left Smith with no leverage in these trade talks, which totally changes the way we have to view his options. It wouldn't have been crazy for the Chiefs to ship Smith to the Browns, where he would have been joining a terrible team and likely serving as a bridge to whomever Cleveland takes with the first overall pick in the 2018 draft.
Through that prism, Washington is a solid landing spot for Smith. He'll be behind an above-average offensive line with a bevy of useful options at receiver. You can already picture Smith falling in love with Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson when they're back on the field in 2018. Jay Gruden works out of a West Coast scheme that shares plenty of underlying principles with what Reid uses in his passing game; the common link between the two, of course, is Jon Gruden.
Instead of serving as a one-year rental before hitting free agency, Smith also gets a four-year extension to stick around in Washington. We don't have specifics on the deal yet, but the former first overall pick is in line to reportedly take home $94 million, with $71 million in guarantees, though the deal can't become official until after the new league year begins on March 14. The word "guarantees" doesn't mean anything unless it's prefaced by "fully" or followed by "at signing," so take that number with a grain of salt. Unless the entire extension is triggered by an option after the 2018 season, Smith is going to be priced in as Washington's starting quarterback through the end of the 2019 season and possibly into 2020. This trade ensures his professional future on a competitive team.
This isn't for acquiring Smith, who was actually better than Cousins this season and was the second-best quarterback after Cousins who was going to come available this offseason. Washington couldn't have expected one of the better quarterback prospects in this year's draft to fall to it at No. 13, and it would be self-destructive to make another trade up to the top of the first round after failing with the Robert Griffin III trade in 2012. Given the mess the team made, Smith was a nifty acquisition.
You shouldn't congratulate a company for doing a great job of cleaning up its own toxic waste spill, though, and I can't sit here and pat Daniel Snyder and Bruce Allen on the back. As someone who doubted Cousins for several years, I can't fault Washington for being skeptical of Cousins after his breakout 2015 season and slapping him with the franchise tag heading into 2016.
Everything afterward, though? Yeah, that's on Washington. The public missteps the organization made during 2016 were one thing, but the dismal offer the franchise made to Cousins last summer -- which was followed by publicly throwing Cousins under the bus with distorted statistics surrounding the proposal -- was scarcely believable. Can you imagine any other team's executives calling their star quarterback by the wrong name?
Smith is four years older than Cousins and has two playoff wins in seven appearances. From this moment forward, he's also going to (unfairly) be the scapegoat for what Washington did wrong with an understandably furious fan base. Smith is the just-as-good replacement you buy when your child loses his/her favorite toy. The sentimental attachment probably means more than the actual toy itself.
Trading for Smith and extending him eliminates the possibility of getting a serious return for Cousins. Washington would have been playing a dangerous game by franchising Cousins for a third season at $34.5 million, but it would have allowed Washington to field trade offers from teams that would have acquired Cousins and immediately offered him an extension to reduce his cap hold.
Instead, with Smith likely occupying $20 million in cap room, Washington will let Cousins hit unrestricted free agency this March. They would be in line to receive a third-round compensatory pick in the 2019 draft, but that will happen only if Snyder sits out free agency and doesn't sign any players who will cancel out the Cousins comp pick. Doing that would require levels of patience and forward thinking this organization simply hasn't shown.
Incomplete: The Chiefs
It's too early to judge this trade for the Chiefs, given that it really serves as part of the broader decision to trade up in last year's draft and acquire Mahomes with the 10th overall pick. Mahomes started for the Chiefs in Week 17 and looked alternately impressive and overmatched in a win over the Broncos. There were plays in which he looked like Aaron Rodgers and plays in which Mahomes resembled Blake Bortles, and it would be foolish to say it told us a ton about where Mahomes is likely to fall on the quarterback spectrum in 2018.
The Chiefs understandably have high hopes for Mahomes, who was reportedly the No. 1 player on their draft board. They also have a coach in Reid who has done an excellent job of developing quarterbacks and building schemes around their strengths. It's reasonable to believe Mahomes will be a fine option at quarterback, but this is swapping a low-ceiling/high-floor quarterback for a high-ceiling/low-floor option. There will likely be short-term growing pains even if Mahomes does grow into his role in time.
Fuller could figure as a bigger part of the trade than the third-round pick, which will be the 78th selection in this year's draft. The Virginia Tech product struggled as a rookie but emerged as an excellent slot cornerback in 2017 and still has two years left on his rookie deal at a combined cost of under $1.4 million. The Chiefs could very well try to push Fuller outside and see if he is able to lock down the wildly problematic cornerback spot across from Marcus Peters. The Chiefs will be delighted if Fuller can pull that off. If he just settles as a slot cornerback, though, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will be happy to have Fuller onboard.
Winner: Kirk Cousins
Once Washington failed to make Cousins a serious offer this past summer, it was clear that the franchise wasn't ever going to pay him anything resembling Cousins' market value. It was time for the 29-year-old to move on, which would have been far tougher if Washington had slapped Cousins with either the transition or franchise tag. Any team looking to acquire Cousins now won't have to pony up a ton of cap space in Year 1, which would have been needed to scare Washington out of matching in the case of a transition tag. The freedom to make an offer with a huge signing bonus spread over several years opens opportunities for teams like the Dolphins to get involved with the bidding.
Cousins is about to become the highest-paid player in the history of the NFL, and the numbers are going to be staggering. This kind of opportunity -- the ability to acquire a franchise quarterback in his prime without having to give up a draft pick -- comes around once in a generation. The last guy who really came close was Drew Brees in 2006, and even then he was coming off of a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder (which famously led the Dolphins to pass on Brees, pushing him to the Saints). Peyton Manning was 36 and coming off of multiple neck surgeries in 2012. Cousins isn't a Hall of Famer, but he's healthier than both those guys were. This simply does not happen.
Matthew Stafford reset the quarterback market this summer when he signed a five-year, $135 million extension that guaranteed him $60.5 million at signing and paid out $87 million over his first three years. The Lions also had Stafford under contract for another year and the ability to franchise him. Cousins has 100 percent of the leverage as a free agent. He'll be able to ask for anything he wants.
It wouldn't be shocking at all to see Cousins top $90 million over the first three years of his new deal, and he could take home $100 million in meaningful guarantees at signing. A $40 million signing bonus and guaranteed base salaries of $18 million in 2018, $20 million in 2019, and $22 million in 2020 gets Cousins to $100 million in three years. Cousins could sign a five-year, $150 million deal and still have another shot at a lucrative extension or free agency before turning 35.
Nobody is arguing that Cousins is a perfect quarterback, but teams without passers are going to take a risk over the next couple of seasons. Is any passer who is likely to come available a better risk than the guy who is sixth in passer rating and seventh in Total QBR over the past three years? Cousins is about to be the subject of one of the most heated bidding wars in league history.
Losers: The Falcons and Packers
The next two veteran quarterbacks in line for lucrative extensions are Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan. Rodgers has two years left on his deal, while Ryan is entering the final season of his contract. Both former MVPs are overdue to receive deals that reset their compensation with the guys at the top of the financial charts, a group that currently includes Stafford, Derek Carr and Andrew Luck.
Unfortunately for Atlanta and Green Bay, the negotiating parameters are about to change. Before, they were operating within a paradigm in which the highest-paid quarterback was Stafford. Now, it's going to be Cousins, and his deal is going to be a degree of magnitude larger than that of Stafford. Instead of negotiating from a position where the peak three-year value for a quarterback deal is $87 million, Ryan and Rodgers (and their agents) will be looking at something closer to $100 million over that same time frame. That's going to be extra money in their pockets. Don't be surprised to see the Falcons and Packers make renewed pushes to sign their quarterbacks before the Cousins deal lands.
Winners: The Bills, Broncos, Browns, Cardinals, Dolphins, Jets and Vikings
If you're a team with either a hole or a problematic veteran at quarterback now and no real path toward a new starter, congrats! One of you is almost assuredly going to end up pocketing a bona fide, above-average NFL quarterback for nothing more than money. That's a dream scenario, and every one of these teams woke up Wednesday morning imagining what their pitch to Cousins will be like over the next couple of months.
There's no perfect fit on this list. The Vikings are the furthest along on a football level and have plenty of cap space, but they have tons of talent to re-sign with players such as Anthony Barr, Stefon Diggs and Danielle Hunter approaching free agency next offseason. They would be making a tough choice to devote significant cap room toward a quarterback at the expense of several other positions on their roster over the years to come. It wouldn't necessarily be a wrong move, of course, but Minnesota just came within one game of the Super Bowl with a third-string quarterback no team wanted before the season. It might think about running this back with Keenum or Teddy Bridgewater at low-end starter money over the next couple of years.
Everyone has flaws. The Bills just ran Tyrod Taylor out of town and have middling weapons in a division with Tom Brady. Denver's defense is beginning to fall apart and its offensive line is a perennial disaster. The Browns, well, you know. The Cardinals are squeezed by the cap and in the middle of overhauling their offensive line. The Dolphins are Washington South in terms of franchise dysfunction. The Jets' best weapon (Robby Anderson) has had legal issues, and they just fired an offensive coordinator who made hay with a bunch of castoffs and Josh McCown at quarterback.
Barring some sort of wildly unexpected decision -- Brees, Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger leaving their respective teams this offseason -- Cousins will almost definitely be on one of these rosters come 2018. My first guess would be the Vikings, who might be the favorites to come out of the NFC next season by adding the former Michigan State star. With options and leverage, Cousins will be the one to decide whether he wants to optimize for the best shot of winning or the most money.
Loser: The Jaguars
Jacksonville would be among the favorites to sign Cousins, but the fifth-year option it handed out to Blake Bortles is creating more problems. Bortles underwent wrist surgery last week on an injury that has apparently been bothering him since December 2016, several months before the Jags locked up Bortles' fifth-year option for 2018.
It was a questionable decision at the time and is significantly more curious when you consider that the Jags knew Bortles' wrist was eventually going to require surgery. The former third overall pick's option was guaranteed only for injury, meaning that the Jaguars could get out of the contract unless Bortles suffered an injury that prevented him from passing a physical. A pre-existing condition like a wrist injury requiring surgery is exactly the sort of concern teams might have in offering a player his fifth-year option.
The Jaguars responded to the news by basically suggesting that they knew Bortles was going to be their starting quarterback in 2018, which would have been a foolish call at the time they made the decision and doesn't look all that much better now. Bortles improved on a dismal 2016 season, looked impressive late in the season, and then delivered a pair of useful postseason games against the Steelers and Patriots, but there also were stretches in which he looked like a totally useless appendage to the best defense in football.
The Jaguars might be in the Super Bowl right now if they had been starting Smith, who would have been a dream trade candidate for them. They would be the second-favorites in the AFC behind the Patriots if they were able to sign Cousins, who would have been a major upgrade on Bortles. Instead, the Jaguars seem committed to keeping Bortles and paying him $19.1 million in 2018. The organization has developed tunnel vision around its starter, and it might cap its peak while that dominant defense is still getting elite production from players such as Calais Campbell.
Loser: Case Keenum
Keenum was set to be the best veteran quarterback on the free-agent market and at least in line to take a franchise tag from the Vikings, which would have put $23.6 million on the table for a guy who had previously made about $7 million in his six-year career.
Now, the Vikings find themselves with a possible lead on Cousins, which would keep them from offering Keenum the franchise tag. Keenum will have to play second fiddle to Cousins in free agency and likely wait for the former Washington quarterback to make his decision before the losing teams in the Cousins sweepstakes swoop in for Keenum as a fallback plan. His calling card was going to be as the veteran quarterback who could hold his own now, and Cousins represents that and more. The coming rise in upper-echelon quarterback money from a Cousins contract isn't likely to trickle down to Keenum, either. The former Houston star could get squeezed after a big year that seemed to justify meaningful long-term money.
Winners: The Colts and Giants
There's a chance that the Browns, who had previously been expected to draft a quarterback with the first overall pick, could instead pivot and use some of their $111.6 million in cap space to outbid everyone for Cousins. Cleveland has what should be an above-average offensive line, a pair of useful young receivers in Corey Coleman and Josh Gordon, and a coach who was once a quarterback developer in Hue Jackson, although every one of those statements is subject to multiple "Well, buts." If the Browns sign Cousins and can use the first overall pick to draft Saquon Barkley, though? Suddenly, Cleveland's offense looks scary.
If the Browns sign Cousins and hold onto the first overall pick -- and they're probably done trading down for extra picks in the short term, if out of spite alone -- the Giants are suddenly in great shape with the second overall pick. They'll have their pick of the quarterbacks in the draft to develop behind Manning. Likewise, the Colts might be in better shape with the third overall pick, given that they likely won't be drafting a quarterback. They wouldn't be able to take Barkley and wouldn't be able to trade their pick to a team who falls in love with the guy the Giants select, but they would be in much better shape to ship this selection for multiple first-rounders if the draft doesn't start with quarterbacks at Nos. 1 and 2.