An NFL trade in January? Why Alex Smith deal was possible and what's next

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Riddick: 'Alex can do things Kirk can't do' (1:34)

Louis Riddick joins SVP to discuss the upside of Alex Smith joining Washington. (1:34)

And so, with all eyes focused on Super Bowl LII, the NFL answered one of its most important offseason questions. Alex Smith will be the Washington Redskins' quarterback in 2018, via trade from the Kansas City Chiefs, and former Redskins starter Kirk Cousins will enter the free-agent market.

If you were caught off guard by the news, which arrived on a random Tuesday night in January, you weren't alone. How could this happen before the start of the new league year? Let's dig deeper.


Well, answer the question! How could this happen in January?

Officially, it really didn't.

Really?

Really. The first moment NFL teams can consummate a trade is 4 p.m. ET on March 14.

Uh, you might want to check the headlines on ESPN.

I didn't say it was the first moment teams could discuss trades. It's perfectly legal, and more common than you might realize, for teams to exchange ideas about potential deals in the days, weeks and even months leading up to the official start of the trading period. The only thing they can't do is finalize the paperwork. That means neither team can discuss it publicly, but there's nothing stopping Smith from doing so.

Then why don't we ever hear about these things?

It's less common for teams to strike a verbal agreement this early, if for no other reason than raising the negotiating intensity as the deadline approaches. It's also quite possible that trades in previous years were agreed to on a similar timeline, but news never leaked.

If the paperwork hasn't been done yet, are we sure the deal will happen?

No, not with 100 percent certainty. Either side could back out without penalty, given that the trade hasn't officially happened. This is a verbal agreement. But now that the news has leaked, backing out would do real and serious damage to a team's credibility. What team, player or agent would feel comfortable doing a future deal with a partner that has a known history of reneging?

Is that why the news was leaked?

I honestly don't know why and how it was leaked. But the public nature of the terms seems to me like a pretty strong guardrail against cold feet.

How can the Redskins already have signed Smith to a four-year contract extension? Isn't he still technically on the Chiefs' roster? Isn't the free-agent market closed until March 14?

Yes, Smith is still is on the Chiefs' roster. But he wasn't a pending free agent and isn't going to be. He is signed through the 2018 season. Teams can begin discussing contracts for their own players after Jan. 1, and NFL rules permit the Chiefs to give the Redskins -- or any other team -- a window to discuss potential contract terms and avoid tampering charges. Clearly, the Redskins weren't going to trade for Smith if they weren't certain he would sign an extension to play beyond the coming season.

What are the cap implications here?

Per ESPN Stats & Information, Smith was set to count $20.6 million against the Chiefs' cap in 2018. When trades occur, a player's base salary -- and thus that part of his cap hit -- transfers with him. At the moment, it appears that the Chiefs will shave $17 million off their 2018 cap and incur $3.6 million in accelerated dead money. Smith's exact charge on the Redskins' cap for 2018 is not yet known, but if the deal is worth $23.5 million annually, you can expect cap charges to average about the same over time.

What about poor Kirk Cousins? This isn't fair to him, is it?

Oh, it's going to work out just fine for Cousins. If he really wanted to be with the Redskins, he could have signed one of the team-friendly offers he received over the past two years. The only thing that changed for him on Tuesday was the elimination of the small possibility that the Redskins would use their franchise tag to retain him for a third consecutive year.

What's next for him?

Cousins and his agent can start full preparations for a rare moment in NFL free agency: a high-quality quarterback available on the open market in the prime of his career. It's fair to argue whether Cousins can be a transcendent player, but even the availability of a quarterback of his talents and relatively young age (29) is highly unusual. It would be surprising if a bidding war didn't lead to him becoming the NFL's highest-paid player in March.