Chiefs’ Smith preps Mahomes to start Sunday (and maybe more)
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Alex Smith is spending this week helping to prepare Patrick Mahomes II to make his NFL debut, since the Kansas City Chiefs have already locked up the AFC West title and have nothing to gain from beating the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
The awkward part? Smith also might be preparing Mahomes to replace him.
The Chiefs traded up to snag Mahomes with the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft, the first time the franchise had used a first-round pick on a quarterback in more than three decades.
And with that kind of investment, the assumption has been Mahomes would spend a season learning the craft under a consummate pro such as Smith, then jump into the starting role next season.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid would never acknowledge such a succession plan, of course. But with Smith’s contract becoming prohibitive next season and the franchise in salary cap purgatory, it makes sense for the franchise to trade or release the veteran in favor of the future.
To his credit, Smith has continued to put the team first during his week off.
“I think being there and being a good teammate, being there to help him if I do see something,” he said, when asked what he’s doing to help Mahomes along.
“It’s a good opportunity for him, a unique type though with the scenario we are in. Obviously, at the same time, staying sharp and staying ready.”
That’s because Smith will be back under center the following week, when the Chiefs (9-6) begin the playoffs for the fourth time in his five seasons leading the franchise.
“I think at this point it’s a good thing to get health. Not every team gets something like this, an extra week to get healthy heading into the playoffs,” Smith said.
“Certainly I think there is a challenge — you are getting a week off and how do you handle it? There is an element there of that.”
Smith certainly wants to stay sharp after the most productive season of his 13-year career.
He’ll end up throwing for 4,042 yards in just 15 games, more than 500 yards better than his next-best season.
The guy known for being a “game manager” leads the NFL with 8.6 yards per attempt, thanks in part to big-play wide receiver Tyreek Hill.
His quarterback rating of 104.7 also leads the league, while his 26 touchdowns and five interceptions are likewise career bests for a full season.
Smith had been too absorbed in the week-to-week grind to think much about his numbers, but having this week off gave him a chance to realize just how special this season has been.
“I guess it’s a reflection of the group, though. As a quarterback, that’s what happens,” Smith said. “I think they’ve done some really good things. Coach is doing a great job of putting us in good situations and then some really good players around.”
Regardless, those numbers couldn’t have come at a better time. They have at least planted a seed of doubt in that succession plan, and perhaps driven up the market for Smith if he’s let go.
The Chiefs could keep him around for a $20.6 million salary cap hit next season, or extend or tweak his contract to make it more amenable.
That would only delay Mahomes from beginning his own era, and the Chiefs didn’t throw away picks to move up in the draft and select a backup quarterback.
Kansas City could also deal Smith to a quarterback-hungry franchise. The Bills have a need and extra draft picks to make something work, while the Browns not only have a need but also have picks, salary cap space and former Chiefs general manager John Dorsey — who swung the trade that brought Smith from the 49ers nearly five years ago — now handling their front office.
If the Chiefs simply release Smith, they would be on the hook for $3.6 million in dead money. It’s a big chunk of change, but still a $17 million savings for a team with very little in the coffers.
That’s all down the road, though. The immediate future for Smith involves preparing Mahomes for a game against the Broncos, then preparing himself for a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.
“You’re going to have a hard time finding a guy who comes to work every day like Alex does,” Reid said, “and to be able to learn from that, that’s priceless.”