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The Quarterback Ripple Effect of the Alex Smith–to–Washington Trade

With Kirk Cousins out of Washington’s future plans, the rest of the NFL will look to pursue him

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

The Deal: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Most of America expected a spectacle from Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night, and the city delivered––but not in the way we thought. Washington will trade for Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, sending a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller to Kansas City in exchange for the veteran passer, as first reported by The Kansas City Star. Washington has reportedly agreed to a four-year contract extension for Smith with $71 million guaranteed.

The trade can’t be officially completed until the new league year begins March 14, so for now all of these agreements are in principle.

The Winner: Patrick Mahomes II and Kansas City

Welcome to the Pat Mahomes era. After the Chiefs drafted Mahomes out of Texas Tech with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 draft, it was only a matter of time until the team moved on from Smith and handed the keys to its young passer. That time is now. Head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy went full-on spread-coast offense in 2017 and introduced a mini-revolution in the process. Nagy left for the Bears, but Reid was the true architect, and now he’ll have Mahomes, who is all of the things Smith is not. Whereas Smith is captain check-down, Mahomes will fearlessly target two of the best deep threats in the league, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. With Mahomes behind the wheel, Kansas City might have the single most fun offense in football next season––college or pro.

While Smith will grab all the headlines, don’t sleep on Fuller. In just his second season out of Virginia Tech, Fuller was the sixth-highest-rated cornerback according to Pro Football Focus, playing primarily in the slot. That the Redskins would give up on Fuller, who fell to the third round due to knee issues but has been excellent through two seasons, is stunning––even for Fuller.

Acquiring a proven player on a rookie contract is the league’s new market inefficiency, and now in addition to clearing $17 million off of their cap in losing Smith, the Chiefs just put together one of the best secondaries in football with Marcus Peters, Eric Berry, and Fuller. Take it from Scot McCloughan, the former Redskins GM who drafted Fuller.

The Loser: Washington

Alex Smith, America’s preeminent check-down artist, will turn 34 years old in May. He’ll be in the nation’s capital through his age-39 season if he plays the full length of his contract. Entering the 2017 season, Smith had established himself as the modern NFL’s game manager to end all game managers, the man who’s never afraid to throw the ball 5 yards shy of the sticks on third-and-long. This season, though, Smith seemingly reinvented himself as a deep-ball artist and led the league in yards and passer rating on deep throws. Whether that performance was a product of Reid’s new offense or inside Smith all along is anyone’s guess, and Washington is paying at least $71 million to find out. What kind of system Jay Gruden cooks up for Smith, and what he deems him capable of handling, will be fascinating.

The Ripple Effect: How the Deal Could Reverberate Around the League

After two years and $44 million of franchise-tag poker with Washington, Cousins holds all of the cards. He will now hit free agency at 29 years young and may earn a record-setting contract as a result. A quarterback hitting the free-agent market at such a young age with such a productive history is completely unprecedented, and Cousins is entering a market with multiple teams starved for competent quarterback play, including the Jets, Cardinals, Vikings, Bills, and Broncos. Arizona, Denver, and Minnesota in particular have black holes at the quarterback positions, and rosters stacked with defensive talent built to win yesterday, while Buffalo and New York have each cycled through at least 15 starting quarterbacks since Tom Brady entered the league and are desperate for a long-term answer at the position.

Six teams were willing to trade for Smith, according to Adam Schefter, which hints at the voracious market Cousins may see in March, but even that may not capture just how badly those teams need quarterbacks. Considering Smith negotiated $71 million in an extension even though he isn’t a free agent and can’t negotiate with other teams, Cousins should safely hurdle that bar with plenty of millions to spare. Cousins is famously meticulous––he plans every waking hour of his day in a color-coded notebook. Former Redskins GM Scot McCloughan said that Cousins would be extremely well-prepared for free agency.

“He has done his homework, probably too much, about each roster, who his receivers are, who his backs are, who his O-linemen are, who the coach is,” McCloughan told The Washington Post on January 19. “Not just the head coach, but the coordinator, position coach, the system they run. I promise you he has notebook after notebook for each team. He is very, very intellectual about knowing what’s best for him. He understands he’s getting older, he’s been in the league a little bit. He wants to win. I know that. Personally, knowing him, it’s not about the money.”

Cousins will be the biggest domino to fall, and he’ll set off a wave. After Cousins signs, there will still be demand for veteran free-agent quarterbacks Case Keenum and, potentially, Tyrod Taylor. In addition to the aforementioned teams, the Browns will likely draft a quarterback with the first overall pick in April, although they were reportedly interested in acquiring Smith and could still be in the market for a veteran quarterback to handle the position to begin 2018. Denver has played the free-agent quarterback market to Super Bowl success before, though the Broncos coaching staff assigned to last week’s Senior Bowl were able to coach Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen, two of the top passers slated for April’s NFL draft.