Sam Mellinger

Chiefs’ best play at quarterback? Extend Alex Smith’s contract

Updated: 2014-01-17T17:19:47Z

By Sam Mellinger

The Kansas City Star

Sometime this offseason, the Chiefs will, and should, spend a little more money than they’d like for a quarterback who’s not quite as good as they’d like.

When it happens, you will hear lots of nonsense, so before we get to that point, you should know that this is the only way for the Chiefs’ biggest offseason issue to be resolved.

The Chiefs will sign quarterback Alex Smith to a long-term deal because they have no better options. Smith will sign that contract for reasons both personal and professional. It will be the most realistic outcome for both sides.

Only with a quarterback can the leverage bequeathed by another team-friendly CBA be shifted back toward a player who still has so much to prove. But this is where we are.

More to the point, this is where Smith and the Chiefs are as they approach a decision critical to the futures of each side.

As much as the Chiefs may want to hoard their options to improve at the game’s most important position, and keep from overpaying a nice-but-not-great player, they don’t have much of a choice.

And this is why, unless something goes very wrong, the Chiefs will sign Smith (whose current contract has one year remaining) to a long-term deal worth more than they’d like to pay for a quarterback with important strengths and a bright future ... but also the kinds of limitations that keep him from ranking among the game’s very best.

The Chiefs need Smith more than Smith needs the Chiefs, in other words, and that kind of dynamic does not usually exist between an NFL team and a player who’s still under contract.

Fortunately for the Chiefs, Smith — after eight years of turmoil in San Francisco — feels a fundamental appreciation for the kind of stability that Kansas City can offer with a long-term contract and head coach Andy Reid.

Smith can take this as his first true chance to be a Franchise Quarterback, with teammates who respect him and coaches and executives who are invested in him. The Chiefs didn’t win a playoff game in their first season together, of course, but Smith played more than well enough against the Colts — quite possibly the best game of his career, actually — to earn confidence.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, can continue to progress with a core group built to win now, with the added benefit that a long-term deal with their quarterback could, literally, buy extra cap space in the short-term.

Smith is due about $7.5 million this season, with a corresponding cap number, and then would become a free agent. The Chiefs could use their franchise tag on Smith for up to two seasons, but among other downsides is the cost: one league source expected it to be around $17 million in 2015, then around $22 million in 2016, with corresponding cap hits.

Going year-to-year sacrifices payroll flexibility, but perhaps more importantly, having a quarterback playing for a new contract every year creates an annual distraction and constant locker-room issue.

That’s too much downside, especially as the cap numbers for safety Eric Berry, linebacker Tamba Hali, cornerback Brandon Flowers, receiver Dwayne Bowe, running back Jamaal Charles, linebacker Derrick Johnson and nose tackle Dontari Poe are set to collectively increase significantly for the upcoming season, and again for 2015. Also, linebacker Justin Houston has earned an enormous raise once his rookie contract expires after this season.

So this is one place where the Chiefs can help themselves. They will have to spend more than they’d like to hand Smith a long-term deal, but if you look at the recent quarterback contracts — Jay Cutler will make $18 million for each of the next three seasons, roughly the going rate for quarterbacks nowadays — you’ll see that nearly every team without Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning or Tom Brady is paying more than it would like for its quarterback.

If the Chiefs and Smith can meet in the middle, using the scheduled $7.5 million salary for 2014 as cushion, this should be a relatively pleasant process between a team that needs the player and a player that wants to be needed.

Which side would balk at a guarantee between $40 million and $45 million over the next three years?

Smith gets stability and guaranteed money. The Chiefs get salary-cap flexibility and can better improve the rest of their roster, including, perhaps, a quarterback they draft and develop the way the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers in Chiefs general manager John Dorsey’s last job.

This is the only good way for it to end for the Chiefs. This is the best way for it to end for Smith.

They have no better choice, so player and franchise move ahead, a mutual pact to make the best out of a future that will define each side.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him at Twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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