The #tldr version: Alex Smith is limited and about to turn 33, this draft class is generally talented but players are thought to need a year to learn, the Chiefs are supremely qualified to give a young quarterback that year, own extra draft picks to help make a trade if necessary, and could save $17 million in cap space by cutting Smith after this season.
Andy Reid has built much of his reputation as a head coach on getting the most from quarterbacks. John Dorsey has built much of his reputation as a general manager on finding the right fits. Together, they have dragged the Chiefs from a disjointed train wreck to the franchise’s best four-year stretch since the 1990s.
Done right, this would be their single most important decision yet in Kansas City.
But before we get too close — and we’re now inside three weeks from the NFL Draft — it might be worthwhile to figure out what’s fair to expect. Because any self-respecting Chiefs fan knows his or her favorite team has not drafted a quarterback first since Todd Blackledge in 1983 (and, not for nothing, any self-respecting Chiefs fan would rather not talk about Todd Blackledge).
We have seen a steady flow of backups from other teams (usually the 49ers), who with the exception of one January 1994 day in Houston have peaked at being good enough to lose in the divisional round.
It’s easy, then, to think the problem is simple to solve:
Step 1: Draft a quarterback.
Step 2: Win Super Bowl.
Let’s take a look.
Forty quarterbacks have been selected by 22 teams in the first two rounds of the 10 drafts since 2007. That’s a lot of numbers, so let’s simplify it here:
Most of them stink.
JaMarcus Russell, John Beck, Drew Stanton, Brian Brohm, Pat White, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen, Jake Locker, Brandon Weeden, Geno Smith, and Johnny Manziel. And that’s a very partial list.
The smart folks at Pro Football Focus rate Alex Smith as the NFL’s 20th best quarterback. That seems about right. If you value his ability to avoid turnovers more, you can move him up a few spots. But of the quarterbacks ahead of him, only 10 are among those 40 quarterbacks selected in the first two rounds of the last 10 drafts.
Of those 10, all but two were selected in the top 10 — a difficult place to trade into from the Chiefs’ current No. 27 pick.
Derek Carr (36th in 2014) and Andy Dalton (35th in 2011) are the exceptions. Others, like Jimmy Garoppolo (62nd in 2014), Teddy Bridgewater (32nd in 2014) and Paxton Lynch (26th in 2016, and at least a soft target of the Chiefs) may join them.
Not all draft classes are created equal, of course, and this one is particularly interesting for the Chiefs. North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky is generally thought to be the best of four top quarterback prospects who could be selected in the first round.
If there is a consensus among those who study such things, it’s that any of the four — Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer are the others — could turn into good long-term NFL quarterbacks with the right luck, work and circumstance.
If draft history is any indication, at least two will be busts. Maybe more.
Trubisky has only one season as a full-time college starter. Watson threw 30 interceptions the last two seasons, with very good receivers. Mahomes’ footwork is a mess, his decisions often too ambitious, and the history of Air Raid quarterbacks in the NFL is horrendous. Kizer’s own college coach recently joined draft analysts in saying he should’ve stayed another year “to grow in so many areas, not just on the field but off the field.”
We can all have our opinions. I believe that Trubisky would be too difficult to trade up for, that Watson would be terrific with the Chiefs, that Mahomes is intriguing but risky, and that Kizer would be a mistake.
Maybe I’m right. I’m almost certainly wrong about some of that. But whatever the opinion, and however yours matches up, we should probably be able to agree on something else.
That even if the Chiefs do decide — FINALLY! — to draft a quarterback, they will be taking a calculated risk that is highly unlikely to pay off immediately.
This will require patience to give the pick time, and restraint from demanding he replace Smith after the season’s first interception.
Dorsey and Reid have a good if imperfect record together in the draft. Their first four drafts have brought in Travis Kelce, Marcus Peters, Tyreek Hill, and Chris Jones. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif in the sixth round in 2014 was a nice find. Eric Fisher has been solid, if you consider what most believed to be a historically weak draft class.
If and when the Chiefs select a quarterback high in the draft, many will talk about Dorsey’s experience when the Packers selected Aaron Rodgers and gave him three years to sit behind Brett Favre.
But Dorsey was also with the Packers when they selected Brian Brohm in the second round. After Donovan McNabb, the only other quarterback the Eagles selected in the top two rounds during Reid’s time there was Kevin Kolb. Together in Kansas City, they’ve taken two quarterbacks in the fifth round who are no longer with the team, beaten out by an undrafted free agent who wasn’t good enough to keep the Chiefs from signing Nick Foles as the backup.
The Chiefs have every reason to draft a quarterback this month. It is in their best interests, both on the football field and salary cap. They have the infrastructure in place to give a draft pick his best opportunity to succeed.
The rest of the roster is relatively solid, so they would not be passing on an obvious need that could not be addressed later with so many extra picks, and besides, the last decade shows roughly a 50-50 chance of late first-round picks succeeding.
So if it’s a risk either way, the Chiefs would be well served to take the one that could change the franchise.
But if it happens, the rest of us would be well served to remember it’s still a risk, and one that will need time and support.