The New Orleans Saints are in a precarious place heading into the 2021 season. Not only is the quarterback position a wild card right now, but outside of Michael Thomas, there hasn’t been a steady No. 2 target at wide receiver. Emmanuel Sanders is gone to the Buffalo Bills, while to Jameis Winston it looks like his two best options will be Thomas and Alvin Kamara... Again.
After Thomas missed much of last season, it seemed like an opportunity for other receivers to step up. And while some did — Marquez Callaway showed some flashes — others didn’t quite answer the call. If Tre’Quan Smith is going to secure a new contract this offseason, Winston is going to be the guy to help him do it.
Smith is part of one of the biggest plays in Saints history — where he caught Drew Brees’ yardage record-breaking pass. But he’s felt underutilized for the Saints in his time in New Orleans. He’s been targeted 119 times for 80 catches and 1,109 yards. He has a surprising 14 touchdowns. So why does a player whose touchdown rate is so high not seem to get more touches?
The frustrating thing about Smith is that his early strengths actually align with Brees’. He’s good at picking holes in zone coverage, he has solid hands, he has good spatial awareness, and he’s decent after the catch. Where he struggles are in his routes, which are not particularly crisp, and against good press coverage.
With Winston, things could be very different. Winston has a bigger arm than Brees, and Smith didn’t play with the gunslinger version of Brees. Here’s how he could work in a potential new-look Saints offense.
One of the places Smith will have to get better is over the middle of the field. This play was in 2019 against the Panthers. You’ll see it’s a cross route on third and long against what appears to be Cover 2 coverage.
The play is fairly simple, but the issue is in how Smith runs the route.
To be fair to Smith, it takes two to throw an interception, and Brees makes a horrible throw into the teeth of triple coverage. Smith, however, veers into his in route, making it easy for Tre Boston to undercut him. Also, to nitpick, he’s starting to turn upfield before making the catch, making it more easy.
Plays like this, while small (and not entirely his fault), can’t become commonplace for an outside receiver. Not being able to navigate the middle of the field is a recurring issue in Smith, he does much better outside. While he can stretch the field horizontally, every receiver needs to be able to work the middle as well.
An area in which Smith is very good is in the secondary route. Especially in the red zone. It’s not an accident that Smith is regularly in position to catch touchdown passes. He’s excellent at working a crowd.
There’s a level of instinct far beyond Smith’s years on display here. He’s in the slot running what looks like a skinny post. However, out of his break Smith turns his head and sees Brees starting to scramble. In doing so, he follows the quarterback, which you’re supposed to do as you enter your secondary routes.
As Smith breaks out of his break, the Texans corner loses him, and Smith creates separation. Brees is able to hit him for an easy touchdown, and the Saints convert in the red zone. It’s a great display of route running, and it would be nice to see those breaks more consistently on scripted routes as well.
Finally, we come to the kinds of catches it’s exciting to see and we hope to see more of.
Down in the red zone once again, Smith is going mano y mano out of the slot with Tampa Bay. Brees immediately identifies this, and Smith runs a wheel route.
Brees puts a back shoulder throw on Smith, who catches it with relative ease for a touchdown.
Smith isn’t the fastest receiver — which is to say he isn’t going to take the top off a defense with blazing speed — but he has the size and physicality to do more with a quarterback like Winston. If he can start to work the middle of the field more consistently and treat the whole field like the red zone, he could become a viable No. 2 threat for the Saints with Winston at the helm.
The alternative, of course, is that he’s reached his ceiling and that ceiling is 50 targets a year. However, that seems hard to believe. Smith’s talent is there, it just doesn’t always feel like he’s had the chance to shine in this version of the Saints offense.
Perhaps he’ll get that chance this year, but there’s still work to do on his end to get there. Smith got to play with one of the best quarterbacks of all time in Brees, but it was in the twilight of his career. Right now, he’s at an “Incomplete” in the grading of him as a player and pick. But if he isn’t able to do more this season in an offense that is going to have to give opportunities to a lot of different players, it could be hard to offer him any kind of new contract after the year is over.