Minutes before their Dec. 27 game against the Cleveland Browns, the Chiefs were warming up on their side of the field, minding their own business, when “Jumpman” — a popular rap song by Drake and Future — began pumping through the Arrowhead Stadium speakers.
The track caused several Chiefs to dance, briefly, as they went through drills, but few had more fun dancing to the beat than their excitable group of defensive backs, led by a lanky veteran wearing No. 21, Sean Smith.
Fellow cornerback Marcus Peters, who would be named the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year, laughed when he recalled the moment. He remembered how much fun they had, both before and during the 17-13 victory, and he wanted to make it clear how much Smith — who is set to become an unrestricted free agent Wednesday — meant to the defensive backs.
“We always say man, if we were a rap group, he’d be our hype man,” Peters said. ‘That would be our Flavor Flav right there. He’s going to be out there, he’s going to make sure the crowd is into it, and we all feed off each other, man.” “We always say, ‘Man, if we were a rap group, he’d be our hype man,’ ” Peters said. “That would be our Flavor Flav right there. He’s going to be out there, he’s going to make sure the crowd is into it, and we all feed off each other, man.”
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Anyone who has followed the Chiefs closely the last three years should not be surprised. Few Chiefs seem to have more fun on the football field than Smith, whose frequent laughing and chirping in games reveals the joy he takes in competition and the positive effect his temperament and skills have on his teammates.
“Sean, he’s the man. He’s the man,” safety Husain Abdullah said. “He keeps everybody calm, chill. He always knows when to crack a joke or say the right thing at the right time, and then he goes out there and he handles his business.
“Sean has meant a lot to us, and as you can see, since his return, we’ve kind of taken off. He’s definitely good to have.”
After Smith returned from a three-game suspension for a DUI arrest in June 2014, the Chiefs — who were 1-2 — lost their next three games before going on an 11-game winning streak.
“For me, coming off the three-game suspension, I’m not going to lie to you — ‘M’ started out the gate hot, and for me, it was like man, I have to catch him,” Smith said, referring to Peters. “So you know, my first couple of games back, I may be aborting my technique or what not to try to catch him in picks.”
Smith, who recorded 45 tackles, 12 pass deflections and two interceptions for the league’s ninth-best passing defense in 2015, settled into his technique as he and Peters (who finished with a league-high eight interceptions) developed into one of the NFL’s best, and most demonstrative, cornerback duos.
“You know, you go back to what made you who are, and that was going back to the basics, fundamentals, tight coverage,” Smith said. “I’m not a guy who is going to play off and get hella picks, (but) you just can’t throw it over there (at me). You have to look somewhere else, you know what I mean?
“That formula seemed to work out pretty good for us, because if I don’t allow the ball to be thrown over there, and they keep throwing over there (at Marcus) and he keeps getting picks, it makes us better as a secondary. So we do work very well together.”
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey has noted many times that Smith loves football and the steady improvement Smith has made since he signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal in 2013 seems to prove that.
“Sean had a nice season,” Dorsey said. “We missed him those first three weeks. We did. As a group, I thought that group played very well, as good as a lot of defensive backs in the National Football League.”
Keeping that group together is a different story. The Chiefs’ decision to franchise star safety Eric Berry on Tuesday means there’s nothing they can do to prevent Smith, 28, from exploring his free-agent options when clubs can negotiate with agents on Monday.
Dorsey said last week at the NFL combine that the Chiefs have had discussions with Smith’s representative, David Canter, and will continue to do so.
But with Berry currently tying up $10.8 million in cap room thanks to the franchise tender, and the Chiefs still needing to lock up several key free agents — such as linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali, defensive tackle Jaye Howard and guard Jeff Allen — re-signing Smith with the approximately $21.75 million in cap room could prove tricky, especially considering that several other teams (including the Raiders, Bears and Giants) need cornerbacks and are flush with cash to spend on free agents.
“He should be looking for a straight money grab. This is probably his last chance to get a big payday,” Joel Corry, a salary-cap expert for CBSSports.com and a former agent, said of Smith.
Still, it’s difficult to pin down how much Smith will command on the market. Corry said Smith is a better player than Byron Maxwell, who earned a six-year, $63 million contract from the Philadelphia Eagles last offseason. Maxwell’s uneven play this year might scare teams off from paying another cornerback as much.
“I think the big thing for both of those guys is not just the money, but the scheme fit,” said NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks, who noted that Smith needs to go to a team that uses a press-man scheme. “We saw with Byron Maxwell, when you don’t have all the pieces around you like the (Seahawks’) Legion of Boom, you don’t play like the same player, so you’ve just got make sure it’s the right fit.”
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former director of pro personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles, said that a player’s consistency is something teams also have to consider when paying cornerbacks big money in free agency.
Riddick said that Smith, whom he calls “supremely talented,” has not always been consistent with his technique, especially early in his career, but he’s seen improvement.
“I would say you’ve seen a gradual progression,” said Riddick, who added that Smith could get even better. “He plays a premium position, and now you’re gonna be talking about some serious money that, maybe on the open market, is gonna be thrown his way. You expect a certain standard when you’re talking about that kind of money, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Smith has spoken often about the need to refine his technique, and he credits his recent improvement as a reason he’s rarely gotten beat in deep coverage the last few years despite his size (6 feet 3, 218 pounds).
“I’ve gotten better every year — if you take a look at my career, I’m constantly getting better and better,” Smith said. “It’s an attitude — I don’t think age matters to a player like me. I’m very versatile, very athletic. I always enjoy challenges; to go out there and earn the respect of the player across from me is just something I definitely value. That’s the approach I take to the game.”
That’s the approach he surely would take with him if he leaves as a free agent. One thing is certain: If Smith leaves, he would be missed, especially by Peters, who credits Smith for being a mentor during a breakout rookie campaign in which he was one of football’s most targeted cornerbacks.
“He tells me all the time that (the defensive backs) feed off me, but I think it’s the other way, man,” Peters said. “He’s 6-3, you know, and I’m a little dude, so I’m thinking I’m getting picked on, and I’ve got a big brother on the other side that’s handling his business, you know?
“So then (quarterbacks) have got to come to me, and then they think they’re going to pick on me. And it’s a battle, and we just go back and forth, and we challenge each other to be great and to always go out there and dominate our opponents and make sure our presence is felt out there.”
Smith says he wants to remain a Chief and team up with Peters for many years.
“Man, I would love to,” Smith said in January while sitting in front of his locker. “Man, look: There’s nothing more than brings a smile to my face than having Coop (cornerback Marcus Cooper) right here, man, and (thinking) I can just come back and groom these young pups — I like to call them — and see them grow and mature into men. You know what I mean?”
Smith’s emphasis on the word “pups” — which was followed by a pause for emphasis — brought down the house, as several young corners seated near him laughed. It was clearhow much Smith was liked and how much he would be missed if he leaves the team.
Smith said he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
“I would love to come back, man,” Smith said after the laughter subsided. “This is home for me.”