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Making Sense of Washington’s Baffling Trade for Alex Smith

The team gave up a third-round pick, a promising cornerback, and a lot of cap space for Smith—but the move raises more questions than it answers

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On the surface, the Redskins’ decision to eschew a long-term contract extension for Kirk Cousins, trade a third-round pick (plus cornerback Kendall Fuller) for Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, and then give Smith the big-money, long-term deal Cousins should have earned over the past two years is, well, completely baffling. Cousins has been the more dynamic, more aggressive, and more prolific passer the past three seasons. He’s posted a trio of 4,000-yard, 25-plus-touchdown campaigns as Washington’s underappreciated starter. Smith, meanwhile, has posted just one such season in his entire career. That came this past year, with the 12th-year vet tossing 26 touchdowns and just five picks with a league-high 104.7 passer rating in Kansas City’s innovative offense. But in general, teams don’t go around essentially trading their franchise-caliber quarterback for an older, more limited option.

Reading between the lines, though, this deal confirms what’s been pretty apparent for some time: Both teams were ready to move on from their incumbent starters. Apparently, neither wanted to come out of that transition with nothing to show for it, either. The Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes II with the 10th pick in last year’s draft, stamping an expiration date on Kansas City’s marriage to Smith, and another disastrous early playoff exit can’t have helped improve what was already an awkward lame-duck scenario for the 33-year-old who was heading into the final year of his deal. In addition to adding a talented starting corner to a defense desperately in need of more playmakers, the Chiefs pick up a third-round pick and an extra $17 million in much-needed cap space to build around their new young franchise quarterback.

For the Redskins, how they got here is one thing, the trade is another, and the contract extension, is, well, something else entirely.

First, the road to this point: Hindsight’s 20/20, but instead of paying Cousins $44 million over the past two years as he played on a pair of franchise tags, the team probably would’ve been much better off simply handing Cousins a long-term extension when his rookie deal was up at the start of 2016. Had it done that, Cousins would now be securely under contract, Fuller would still be a key piece of the team’s defense, and that third-round pick could be used to keep adding to the team’s nucleus in the upcoming draft. But that contract extension never happened; the two sides could never agree on terms, and former Washington GM Scot McCloughan later admitted he never saw his quarterback as a “special” player to build the team around. Throughout that process, the team’s relationship with its fiery signal-caller seemed to sour.

As a result, this Cousins divorce has felt imminent for some time; he’s played on two straight franchise tags, risking career-ending injuries for two straight seasons with no long-term guarantees, and haggled back and forth with an organization that never felt all too eager to keep him around for two straight years. McCloughan recently offered insight into what he thought Cousins’s approach would be in his upcoming free-agency tour, noting that the biggest draw for the 29-year-old was going to be finding the place with the right fit. A place “where he knows he has stability, he has good coaches, he has good players, and he has a chance to be successful.”

Does that sound like the Redskins to anyone? Based on McCloughan’s perspective—and Cousins’s comments on Tuesday, that money is not “the only thing” that determines where he goes next—it seems clear that Cousins already knew he wasn’t going to stay in Washington. Washington knew he wasn’t going to stay in Washington, too. So, from the Redskins’ point of view, they were simply speeding up the process by making a deal for a guy that can give them both a chance to win in 2018 and a bridge option so they can kick the can down the road in finding and developing their long-term franchise quarterback. It cost them a solid draft pick and a promising young defensive back, but starting quarterbacks never come cheap.

Smith’s reported four-year contract extension is expected to average $23.5 million per year and guarantee him $71 million. That’s a big chunk of change for a soon-to-be-34-year-old quarterback best known as a conservative check-down artist. Sure, quarterback salaries and the corresponding sticker shock explode with each new deal. And sure, Smith emerged as one of the league’s best deep-ball passers this season. But what he did in Kansas City’s offense this year was an outlier performance that may be due more to Andy Reid’s innovative play design, the fact he was throwing to two downfield playmakers in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, and that he was supported by one of the most dynamic running backs in the game, rushing champ Kareem Hunt.

Smith’s a fit for Jay Gruden’s offense in Washington, where West Coast terminology and many of the route concepts, the footwork, and the timing should be the same as what he ran in Kansas City, making for a relatively seamless transition. But there’s a jump down in offensive talent: The Redskins don’t have much of a run game, and outside of the cutting-edge hybrid-spread scheme Reid (and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy) deployed this year, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Smith revert to the all-too-timid passer we’ve seen during most of his career. Many of Gruden’s schemes are designed to take pressure off of the quarterback, but every play-caller needs a guy that makes tight-window throws to the sticks on third down. If Smith can’t build on his career year, continue to attack down the seams, and challenge defenses deep, it’s going to be tough for him to really live up to that big-money extension.