Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Lombardi Ave. He has previously written for Hail to the Orange, College Hoops Net, Mocking the Draft, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JBHirschhorn.
Yesterday, the San Francisco 49ers sent backup quarterback Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs. In return, San Francisco receives the 34th overall pick in the upcoming draft and a conditional third round selection in 2014 that could convert to a second rounder depending on Smith’s playing time. That’s a large haul considering the dearth of demand around the league.
But it’s a robbery considering Smith’s low volume production.
While Smith finished with his most efficient year as a pro (he led the league in passer rating at the time he was benched), the former 49er has yet to produce a single season with 3000 or more yards passing and 20 or more touchdowns. Even Smith’s 2012 projected out to a full season – 2779 yards, 21 TDs, and 8 INTs – wouldn’t provide 3000/20 volume.
For the 49ers, Smith was more of a passenger of the ship than its captain. It begs the question: is a quarterback that is only efficient when he doesn’t take risks worth such a major investment?
There aren’t any great comps for the Smith trade, which is easy to understand. Teams with quarterbacks of any discernible quality rarely allow them to leave. Of the few occasions when a team did trade a quality quarterback, only the trades of Brad Johnson and Matt Cassel provide any insight into what the Chiefs can expect with Alex Smith.
In 2001, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers acquired Brad Johnson from Washington. An off and on starter, Johnson was a moderately efficient passer who the Buccaneers felt could optimize their talented but underachieving roster. In comparison to Smith, Johnson was a higher volume passer but less efficient. Regardless, Johnson was no one’s definition of a franchise quarterback. Rather, he was a quality short term solution to a prolonged quarterback shortage in Tampa. In Johnson’s first season as a Buccaneer, Tampa actually regressed, falling to 9-7 and third in the NFC Central. That led to head coach Tony Dungy receiving his walking papers and Tampa trading a truckload of draft picks for Jon Gruden. A year later, Tampa improved to 12-4 and won their first championship in franchise history. While that might imply the Johnson trade was a sterling success, it’s important to remember how much Tampa relied on their defense. That year, the Buccaneers lead the NFL in yards given up, points allowed, and points scored by a defense. By comparison, the Tampa offense finished 24th in yards and 18th in points scored. While Johnson provided leadership, he didn’t provide all that much in the way of an aerial attack. If Johnson’s performance is any indication of what the Chiefs can expect from Alex Smith, the Chiefs’ defense will have to improve dramatically, especially given the high draft picks Kansas City parted with.
More recent was the case of Matt Cassel. Cassel barely played in college or in New England prior to 2008. That was the year Tom Brady tore his ACL in week 1, clearing the way for Cassel’s first meaningful snaps since his senior year of high school. To the surprise of many, Cassel played well, throwing for almost 3,700 yards and 21 touchdowns while leading the Patriots to an 11-5 record. By the following season, Brady had healed and Cassel had been acquired by Kansas City. As with Brad Johnson, the early returns were disappointing. Cassel had as many interceptions as touchdowns, and the Chiefs went 4-12. In 2010, Cassel’s touchdown total increased by more than 10 while his interceptions were reduced by over 50%. Not coincidentally, the Chiefs won the AFC West for the first time since 2003. Unfortunately, that’s the best it got for Cassel in Kansas City. His next two years were a cocktail of injuries and unmet expectations, finally culminating in the aforementioned Alex Smith acquisition. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, both Brad Johnson and Matt Cassel suggest that this was a bad trade for Kansas City.
Now, the more pressing question for Green Bay: how will this trade affect the Packers? Or more specifically, how will the trade affect the Packers’ draft?
As I wrote about earlier this month, the Packers will be greatly benefited or hurt by how many teams select quarterbacks in the first round. Any quarterback taken before the Packers’ selection will be a reach in terms of raw value, not to mention it keeps a player the Packers may desire on the board. Prior to the Smith trade, Kansas City was widely believed to be a possible destination for a rookie quarterback. The Chiefs had been connected to West Virginia’s Geno Smith, a quarterback with both speed and pocket passing skills not too unlike new Kansas City coach Andy Reid’s old protégé, Donovan McNabb.
Now with the Chiefs out of the quarterback market, it stands to reason that one less quarterback will be selected prior to Green Bay’s pick. The consequences of this are too remote to decipher at this time, but as we’ve seen it only takes one player to fall to change a franchise. Take the Packers for instance. In 2005, due to a confluence of a favorable draft order and quarterback demand, Aaron Rodgers fell from the top 10 to the mid-20s. The Packers snatched him up, and three years later the Packers were rewarded for their foresight and patience with a true franchise quarterback. But the Packers struck again in 2009, when B.J. Raji fell to pick 9 due to false reports of a positive drug tests. In just two years Raji became the most important defensive lineman on Green Bay’s Super Bowl winning roster.
There is another angle to the Alex Smith trade. The strength of the 2012 draft lies in the second to third round, where there is little to no drop off in value from player to player. Smart teams will try to maximize the amount of picks they can get for those rounds through trades. Had Kansas City not traded for Alex Smith, they might have drafted Geno Smith at number one. They also might have drafted another player and tried to trade back into the late first for another shot at a quarterback. The Packers were in prime position to be that team that trades back for more picks in that uber-valuable draft range. While that could still happen, there’s one less team vying for the Packers’ pick.