As Chiefs fans get ready to hunker down in their respective trenches for the offseason debate over Alex Smith vs. Patrick Mahomes, the most important reasoning actually has nothing to do with the play of Smith or Mahomes on the field.
In the 2018 season, Mahomes has a total base salary/cap hit of $3.7 million. Smith, entering the final year of his contract, has a base salary of $18.1 million and cap hit of $20.6 million. With a $3.6 dead cap penalty, it would free $17 million in cap space to cut or broker a trade for Smith.
This may not mean much in baseball, but with the NFL salary cap in place that limits how much each team can spend, the financial side is a key factor that no team ignores.
So instead of asking who’s better, perhaps asking if Smith is five times better than Mahomes, (the difference in their cap hit) is a more accurate way to frame the question.
If all things were equal, the Chiefs would not be all that crazy to stay with Smith coming off a career year. Looking at next season alone without a cap, it can be argued that Smith gives Kansas City the best chance to make the playoffs again.
Expecting Mahomes to play better than Smith’s 2017 totals of 26 touchdowns, five interceptions, 4,397 yards total, 67.5 competition rate and 104.7 passer is likely too high of a bar to set.
But, expecting Mahomes to perform somewhat close to that, while using Smith’s money to improve the team elsewhere, is most likely the route Kansas City will go. Not because Mahomes will be way better than Smith or that Smith was bad, but because the team as a whole can drastically improve without that large of a contract on the books.
The quarterback is the most important position on the field, and if Mahomes cannot come close to the success Smith had, then the Chiefs should keep Smith regardless of the price tag. But after another playoff failure, added with a promising Mahomes performance in week 17, it’s tough to imagine a scenario where that plays out.
Another hurdle Kansas City faces in keeping Smith revolves around the team’s already poor cap situation. Part of the reasoning behind parting ways with former general manager John Dorsey had to do with mishandling the cap, and the team already sits more than $7 million over the cap max, easily the worst situation in the NFL.
Only one other team in the NFL enters 2018 over the cap and the current league average for available spending sits at $38 million. The Chiefs trail that league average by a whopping $45 million, even without fielding a draft, which on average costs an additional seven million as well.
This means the Chiefs will have to cut some salary just to field a team, let alone retain any free agents or improve on the open market. It’s this dire situation that maybe seals Smith’s fate, as the other top three players that could help clear the cap are Justin Houston, Eric Berry and Eric Fisher, all of which the Chiefs are far more unlikely to part ways with.
Smith is the only one with a suitable replacement ready to go and freeing up $17 million would by itself clear the debt and field a draft, with even a bit left over. Getting any kind of draft pick compensation for Smith would be icing on the cake for a team without a 2018 first round pick.
While most fans will cite Smith’s stereotypical check down style or lack of playoff success as to why it’s time to move on, it’s these more complex reasons that actually signal the likely start of the Mahomes era.
The soon to be second-year player doesn’t even have to be as good or better than Smith for it to be the right move, especially if the Chiefs knock their coinciding offseason moves out of the park.
The clock is now ticking on the Chiefs window for success with Mahomes. As soon as the gunslinger has success and talk of a new expensive contract grows, making him no longer such a cheap commodity with overall team flexibility, then Kansas City will find itself back in the same tricky situation they are right now.
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