Why the Redskins Made a Mistake With the Alex Smith Trade
Since the departure of Scot McCloughan, the Washington Redskins have been a laughing stock characterized by an unstable front office dominated by the ego of Bruce Allen. This instability had a clear effect on the Redskins entering the most recent season, as they collapsed on both sides of the ball and went 7-9, despite spending big in free agency on the likes of DJ Swearinger and Terrelle Pryor.
On Tuesday evening, the circus that is the Washington Redskins front office pulled off a truly bizarre trade, as reported by Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star. The Redskins acquired Alex Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for a third-round draft pick in the upcoming draft, and a top-tier slot corner in Kendall Fuller. The Redskins then appeared to go all in on Smith, as they confirmed that they were handing Smith a four-year extension, which according to Adam Schefter, will see him earn an average of $23.5 million per year, with around $70 million in guarantees.
For a starter with a low ceiling, yet an admittedly high floor, this is a lot of money, and it is debatable if he is an upgrade on Kirk Cousins.
For Alex Smith’s fantasy owners, this isn’t a great move as Smith walks into a team without the best deep threat in the League, and the most reliable pass-catching tight end in the League. He inherits a young and potentially exciting Redskins corps led by the likes of Josh Doctson and Ryan Grant, but the Redskins at this point in time lack difference makers unless Jordan Reed can miraculously stay healthy for an entire season.
From a non-fantasy perspective, this trade is baffling for the Redskins in a variety of ways, as they seem to be committed to mediocrity in an era that has seen their attendances dwindling as each season passes. Alex Smith did indeed have a good season for the Chiefs, but I question whether we should fully buy into it. Smith was at his best at the beginning of the season when Kareem Hunt simply caught everyone off guard, and allowed Smith to hit Tyreek Hill over the top in the play action game. When teams began to scheme for Hunt and put the fate of the game back in the hands of Alex Smith, he returned to being a middle of the road QB who could keep his team in a game, but not drag them over the line.
One statistic that appears to be circulating on NFL Twitter, is the fact that Alex Smith led the NFL in deep completion percentage and deep pass yards in 2017. He no doubt deserves some credit for this, but it is clear from a quick tape study that Tyreek Hill is largely the reason for this, as his rare speed makes him the most deadly deep threat in the NFL at this moment in time. Essentially, if you are throwing to Tyreek Hill in an expanded playbook, you are going to get a lot of deep yards, because he gets open so easily that it is almost impossible not to find him. Smith did send 12.3% of his passes deep according to PFF, but according to the NFL’s Next-Gen stats, only CJ Beathard had a lower ‘aggressiveness rating’ than Smith, and this is a metric that measures how often a QB throws into tight windows. This essentially proves that Smith’s deep yard statistics were a result of the scheme and his supporting personnel, rather than his own genius.
The Redskins do have free agency and the draft to try and add a deep threat of Tyreek Hill’s quality, but we have to assume that this is unlikely, as Hill’s blend of speed and route running is something that comes along once in a decade at most. The Redskins offense lacked playmaking so much in 2017, that as the season progressed, they gradually moved towards a more conservative offense. The Redskins were middle of the road in terms of pass play selection, but due to a lack of deep threats, they began to run an offense based on quick intermediate passes, as they really only had possession receivers. If the Redskins are going to run an offense like that again, then the Alex Smith addition makes some sense. But the Redskins offense took a step back in 2017, and suggesting Alex Smith can fix this offense because he had one good year in much better circumstances than he will now inherit, is naïve. Alex Smith is better in a lot of areas than Kirk Cousins, but putting the team on his back and winning games is not one of them. The issue with Smith will always be that he leaves plays on the field. It is generally not my style to buy into narratives, but a quick watch of any Chiefs game shows that Smith refuses to throw into tight windows, but Kirk Cousins has been more than happy to try and force things throughout his Redskins career, which is something Jay Gruden wants and expects his signal-caller to do.
Alex Smith can steady the ship for Washington, but the issue with this signing is that steadying the ship is not what Washington needs. Alex Smith’s more conservative style worked in Kansas City and San Francisco because he had a top tier running game supporting him, and a defense that consistently made plays for him. Smith inherits neither of these things in Washington, and they really should have committed to Kirk Cousins and surrounded him with more weapons than a couple of under-developed possession receivers.
The Redskins gave up a third-rounder, in this case, doesn’t matter much, as they will receive a third-round compensatory pick when Cousins signs elsewhere, but the departure of Kendall Fuller is potentially the worst part of this trade. In the 2016 season, the Redskins were one of the worst defensive teams in the League, and they notably struggled down the middle, as they gave up a passer rating of 125 over the middle of the field, and this number increased to a perfect 158 on third down situations. This year they improved, moving that number down to 105, and Kendall Fuller was arguably the main reason for this. He developed into one of the best slot corners in football, and the Redskins let a key piece of their defense go so they could acquire a worse QB than the one they already had. A slot corner is admittedly one of the more replaceable pieces on a defense, but Fuller still has two years on his rookie deal, making him one of the bigger steals out there.
To conclude, Alex Smith is under-appreciated and he could do a great job for a handful of NFL franchises, but the Redskins are not one of them. It is clear that Bruce Allen has bought into this season as the norm, rather than an anomaly. Smith undoubtedly played well in 2017, but just throwing the numbers out there without context is my major issue with any analysis of this signing. Tyreek Hill’s speed and Matt Nagy’s expanded scheme were the major reason for Smith’s improvement, and he will not inherit such nice circumstances when he joins the Redskins circus in March.
Jay Gruden is clearly a talented coach and offensive mind, but it would not surprise me if he quickly grew frustrated with a lot of Smith’s tendencies, and he will no doubt miss the aggression of Kirk Cousins.