What Were the Chiefs Doing?

By David Freed

With the NFL’s first regular season games looming, now seems like a good time to revisit key offseason transactions and discuss how they might actually impact the performance of certain teams. Today we’ll focus on the Chiefs.

An ESPNInsider post by Matt Williamson lauds the Kansas City Chiefs for a series of moves that transformed the franchise. Out were Matt Cassel, coach Romeo Crennell, wide receiver Steve Breaston, and former no. three pick Glenn Dorsey. In came Alex Smith, Andy Reid, Donnie Avery, Mike DeVito, Anthony Fasano, and Sean Smith. Williamson argues that “the Chiefs roster has vastly improved in free agency,” and has previously said that he thinks, “a playoff berth certainly is not out of the question” for next season. While the Chiefs have certainly been active, I contend this offseason has hurt the franchise.

Some of the biggest news this offseason was that Kansas City sent a second round pick this year and a conditional pick in 2014 to the San Francisco 49ers for quarterback Alex Smith. Smith was a below-average NFL quarterback for almost his entire time in the Bay Area. Forced to acclimate to a different offensive coordinator every year, no coach was able to build a system to complement his skill set. He never recorded a positive Win Probability Added.

Then Jim Harbaugh came in. Smith suddenly posted a combined 1.49 WPA while completing more than 60 percent of his passes. Conversely, Cassel committed 18 turnovers in just nine games last year. The Chiefs finished 2-14, and management cleaned house.

The difference between these two quarterbacks is more perception than reality. The upgrade between the two is minimal, and certainly not worth the value the Chiefs gave up. As discussed before, Smith has never posted a WPA over 0.89—good for only 22nd in the league that year—and his only two positive seasons came with the best offensive line in the league (according to Pro Football Focus) in front of him and defenses selling out to stop the run. Smith completes a lot of passes but for few yards; his adjusted yards per attempt peaked last season at 5.7. That mark would not have ranked in the top 32 passers.

Cassel, on the other hand, was an above-average quarterback the other two years he was in Kansas City. The former Patriot posted a WPA above 1.00—more than Smith ever has—in each of his first two years with the team. In 2011, Cassel had more WPA in nine games than Smith did in 18, averaging four times as much WPA per game. Cassel put on this performance despite a much worse cast around him than Smith had in San Francisco.

Smith’s fit in Reid’s scheme is also questionable. Over the past two years, Smith was sacked 2.7 times a game on 26 dropbacks behind the best line in the game. Despite playing behind an average offensive line (12th in the league by Pro Football Focus), Cassel was sacked only 2.3 times a game on 30 dropbacks over that same period. Transitioning into Andy Reid’s offense where getting the ball out quickly is important, Smith’s tendency to take sacks should raise a red flag. Similarly, as Grantland’s Chris Brown notes, Reid’s West Coast was at its best when “it was as much about throwing vertically—with deep passes to Terrell Owens or DeSean Jackson breaking open a game—as it was about short passes underneath.” Smith’s inability to stretch the field is another problem sign for the Chiefs.

We haven’t even addressed the cost that the Chiefs gave up. Keeping in mind the second round pick they gave up is at the very top of the second round and using Kevin Meers’ chart of draft value, we can see the pick the Chiefs gave up (no. 34 overall) is worth about eight-ninths as much as San Francisco’s first-round pick (no. 31 overall). Giving up what was basically a late first round pick for a marginal quarterback upgrade is clearly not worth it. Further, as discussed at length in Cade Massey and Richard Thaler’s paper, the surplus value generated from that pick is significantly more than the value Smith’s contract ($8 million per year) provides over its duration. Add in that the Chiefs aren’t currently developing a young successor and brought in undrafted 26-year old Chase Daniel (he of nine career NFL pass attempts) as a backup, and the organization’s plan for the future at the NFL’s most important position is very murky. The Chiefs could have gotten a quarterback for their future—Florida State’s EJ Manuel or Tennessee’s Tyler Bray—with this pick for a fraction of the cost.

Overpaying Dwayne Bowe presents another misstep. Bowe, who is being paid with his new contract (five years, $56 million) like a top five receiver, was the 56th best wideout last year by DVOA. He has never been higher than 18th, and has been outside the top 50 in two of the last three years. For perspective, the player ranked right above Bowe—the Rams’ Chris Givens—will make nearly half a million next year, about 1/22nd of what Bowe will bring home for similar production.

The damage report largely ends there. Signing the underrated tight end Anthony Fasano—who has dropped only three passes in three years—was good value for the Chiefs. Fasano will provide a safety valve for Smith and, having rated in the top six of Pro Football Focus’ blocking rankings in four of the past five years, will open up holes in the running game for tremendous running back Jamaal Charles. Waiting until the market died down to sign cornerback Sean Smith to a three-year, $18 million deal was good value for a decent cornerback. Although Smith ranked as only the 52nd best in the league in coverage, according to Pro Football Focus, he is still an improvement for a secondary  (30th in the league in allowed YPA) that never recovered from posing Brandon Carr last offseason. Paired with Brandon Flowers, ranked 9th by the same metrics, Smith could help the secondary regain some respectability.

In the larger picture, however, it is hard to say that the Chiefs got more than marginally better over the course of the offseason. This Chiefs team does not look drastically different than the versions that went 17-15 the two years before this one. Smith may be two years younger than Cassel, but he may have already reached what has been a pretty low ceiling for a former no. 1 pick. After being left with hoards of cap space by Pioli, new management has locked a lot of it up in overpriced commodities (Albert, Smith, Bowe) whose NFL resumes are long enough to cement them as forever good-but-not-great. A couple extra wins this season may keep the current management employed, but the Chiefs’ current and future on-field product isn’t getting any closer to elite.

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