Five Ways 2016 Was Alex Smith’s Best Season in Kansas City
I’ve never been a big fan of Alex Smith. His wet noodle of a throwing arm makes him something of a bore to watch. … And he doesn’t inspire much confidence in his skills as a quarterback. Sure, he’s accurate; but when your average depth of target (aDOT) is two-to-three yards closer to the line of scrimmage than most other quarterbacks, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), it makes it easier to hit your target.
To his credit, he’s one of the better runners among quarterbacks, a skill that often gets overlooked. His scrambles represent the most exciting part of his game, for better or worse.
2016 was a good year for the Chiefs. Certainly much of that is the increased contribution from guys like Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Spencer Ware. But Alex Smith is another integral component and his performance this season was in many ways his best as a Chief.
I present you with five of these ways, and if my tongue occasionally slips into my cheek, I’m sorry (not sorry).
Running the Football
Alex Smith has always been an underrated running quarterback. He’s fast and deceptively agile. Back at the 2005 combine, he ran a 4.71 forty, putting him in the 80th percentile for quarterbacks (via PlayerProfiler.com). But the really impressive combine stat is his agility score of 10.79 — good for 98th percentile. Agility score combines 20 yard shuttle time and three cone drill times to provide a metric for estimating how deft a player is. For comparison, LeSean McCoy, a rather shifty player in his own right, only posted a combine agility score of 11.0.
Given that Alex Smith had around 40 percent fewer rushing attempts this season compared to last, you would expect his rushing numbers to suffer, and in some respects, you’d be right. His yards per carry dipped way down. With the lack of volume, his final total of 134 rushing yards seems paltry. However, he more than doubled his previous career-high in touchdowns, scoring five times on the ground in 2016. The real takeaway here, which Andy Reid may have accepted in the last third of the season, is that Smith probably needs to run it more for the Chiefs. The only problem, of course, is that Andy Reid doesn’t want to get stuck with Nick Foles at quarterback.
Not Taking Sacks
Sacks are the worst. They stall momentum, kill drives. They can take a team out of field goal range. They can let the clock run out during a desperate fourth quarter comeback attempt. And Mr. Smith has never been very good at avoiding them.
But this season, he improved drastically. He took last season’s 8.7 percent sack rate and he smashed it down to 5.4 percent, a career-low. The 28 sacks taken in 517 dropbacks are the fewest in any season when he’s played 15 or more games, by a significant margin. In 2015, he lost 95 more yards to sacks than he did this season.
This is an easy one — Alex Smith posted a career-high in yards this season, breaking the 3,500 yard mark, barely, with 3,502 passing yards. He wasn’t particularly efficient doing it, but not too bad either. He attempted 489 passes, his second-highest total. His efficiency fell in line with his performance in previous seasons, but it did not make any significant strides forward. His passing was consistent, allowing him to reach a career-high 233.5 yards per game — for whatever that’s worth.
Alex Smith No Longer has the Lowest Average Depth of Target
Alex Smith takes a lot of flak about being too eager to check down. Well, I’m here to say, it’s pretty well-deserved. Since joining Kansas City in 2013, Smith has held the dubious honor of having the lowest average depth of target (aDOT) in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks. But not this year! His aDOT of 6.9 still isn’t very impressive, but it beat out Sam Bradford’s 6.6 to catapult Mr. Smith to second-to-last.
These are two of the game’s most “accurate” passers by completion percentage. And yet, few people are excited about either quarterback. Maybe, just maybe, completion percentage unadjusted for aDOT doesn’t tell us very much about a signal caller at all.
Hey, every other quarterback gets too much credit for their wins. Why not some love for Alex? Smith has won eleven games in back-to-back seasons and three of the last four. Not many quarterbacks can make that claim. Consequently, he’s made playoff appearances in three-of-four years as well. Those haven’t exactly gone well for Mr. Smith. I’d say it’s not all on the quarterback, but that would defeat the thesis of this section. So, instead I’ll say he has a proven record of winning; I’ll also remind you that has no predictive value going forward.
Unless you’re in a really wacky league, Alex Smith’s postseason struggles aren’t a concern. The concerns with him are clear, but the good news is they’re mostly usage concerns. He’s shown us repeatedly that he knows the #KonamiCode (H/T @LordReebs) for fantasy quarterbacks — rushing yards and scores. His agility has been neglected, but we have hope. Over the last five games of the regular season, he averaged 4.2 rushing attempts per game versus an average of 2.7 in the previous ten games. He scored three of his five rushing touchdowns during that span. Has Andy Reid seen the light?
Another reason for optimism comes in the form of Smith’s weapons. No one can deny the impact the emergence of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce has had on the Chiefs’ offensive potential. With the chance to add a solid wide receiver or two in the offseason, we could be looking at a much more effective passing offense next season. If the trend of strong receiving out of the backfield continues (whether it’s Spencer Ware, Jamaal Charles, or someone else), Smith could have a full arsenal at his disposal.
This is an educated guess, but I’d be willing to bet that Smith’s ADP will be in the bottom-half of quarterbacks in 2017. If you’re drafting a quarterback late (and you should be), Smith could offer a strong combination of upside potential and a safe weekly floor.
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