Following the recent hiring of coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey, finding a starting quarterback became priority No. 1 for the Chiefs. They scoured the trade and potential free-agent markets and researched quarterbacks who would be available in the draft.
They settled Wednesday on Alex Smith, a part-time starter for the San Francisco 49ers for the past eight seasons. The deal, which cannot become official until the NFL’s trading period begins on March 12, would send the Chiefs’ second-round pick, 34th overall, plus a conditional pick in 2014, to the 49ers.
“I like this trade a lot,” former Chiefs quarterback Rich Gannon said. “I like the timing of it. It allows the Chiefs to kind of move forward with kind of a concrete plan for what they’re going to do in terms of free agency and the draft. They’ve got the centerpiece from an offensive perspective now and they can find the pieces to put around him.”
In return for the draft picks, the Chiefs are getting a talented player. Smith, who turns 29 in May, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the 49ers after two strong seasons as a starter in college at Utah.
Only recently has Smith become a productive player in the NFL. The 49ers repeatedly changed offensive coordinators and systems during Smith’s early seasons and he was a disappointment as recently as 2008, when he missed the entire season because of a broken bone in his shoulder.
Smith began to turn his career around the following year, but he didn’t really flourish until Jim Harbaugh joined the 49ers as head coach in 2011. Smith set a career high with a 90.7 passer rating that season and helped the 49ers win the NFC West championship with a 13-3 record and advance to the conference title game.
He was the NFL’s top-rated passer last season with a mark of 104.1 and was completing more than 70 percent of his passes after a 6-2 start when he received a concussion in a November game against the Rams. When Smith was cleared to play a couple of weeks later, the 49ers kept him on the bench in favor of Colin Kaepernick.
Smith by all accounts remained a team player through his benching and a mentor to Kaepernick.
“I don’t know him at all,” Chiefs tackle Eric Winston said. “I’ve never met him. But I’ve watched him from afar and he handled the situation last year really well. That tells you a lot about him. It shows what kind of pro and what kind of person he is.”
Kaepernick led the 49ers to the NFC championship and the Super Bowl, so Smith became expendable. The Chiefs, who had the two lowest-rated passers in the league last season in Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn, were looking for a quarterback.
“I just think if you really study his career, what happened those first five or six years was just a disaster,” Gannon said. “Every time he turned around, he had a new coordinator, a new system, a new playbook. There was no carryover. There was a dramatic departure from the thing they were doing before.
“To his credit, he went through a lot of adversity and came through it in one piece. People say he’s a game manager and all that stuff but the guy won 13 games (in 2011) and took care of the football, threw a league-low five interceptions. Then this year he was playing well, completing 70 percent of his passes.
“It looks like the guy has turned the corner. There are a lot of good qualities about this guy. He’s tough and he’s a better athlete than people give him credit for. He’s not an Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady in terms of his arm strength, but there’s only a handful of those guys in the league.”
Reid and Dorsey judged Smith to be the best quarterback available. As such, he becomes the centerpiece as the Chiefs attempt to recover from a 2-14 season.
The Chiefs can now move on to other pressing matters, mainly what to do about wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and tackle Branden Albert, the most valuable of their potential unrestricted free agents.
The Chiefs have no accomplished wide receiver other than Bowe, their top pass catcher in each of the past four seasons. That makes it likely the Chiefs would retain Bowe either with a long-term contract or by making him the franchise player for the second straight season.
What they do with Albert will tip their plans for their first-round draft pick, the first overall. If they allow Albert to depart as a free agent, they would appear to have Texas A&M tackle Luke Joeckel in mind with their first pick. Joeckel is generally considered to be the top tackle available in the draft.
Taken together with the hiring of Dorsey and Reid, the addition of Smith provides a fresh start for the Chiefs.
“That’s kind of the key term in all of this,” Winston said. “It is a fresh start for everyone. When a new coach and a new GM comes in, they’re going to want their own players. Everybody is being evaluated that way. They decided a change needed to be made at that position and I’m sure you’re going to see that at other positions as well.”