During New Orleans Saints WR Tre’Quan Smith’s media availability last week, he spoke highly of his offseason work with competing QB Jameis Winston. Winston flew Smith out to Los Angeles and even put him up so that they could work together this offseason in preparation for training camp.
This isn’t out of the ordinary for Smith, who did he same thing in San Diego with Drew Brees ahead of his rookie year in 2018. Smith’s rookie year had a couple of really fantastic moments, but consistency was a bit of a question mark. However, the inconsistency was never really about Smith as a receiver. He’s caught 63.8% or better of his passes since coming into the NFL. The questions centered around when the big game would pop up.
With only three 80+ yard receiving games in his 40 game career, it’s easy to see why the wideout looks to be bursting at the seams for a breakout year over breakout performances. While growing pains can always play a part in a young NFL players’ adjustment to the league, Smith looks poised and ready to show the world what he can do and does believe that he could see more opportunities in an offense not as condensed as years past.
Stretching the ball, or the field, was something Smith did very successfully in Orlando throughout his college years.
During his 2017 collegiate breakout season with the UCF Golden Knights, Smith drew 17 targets over 20 yards, scoring touchdowns on nine of those passes. He also welcomed the nation’s second-best passer rating when targeted at the position with 142.9 per Pro Football Focus.
After being drafted by the Saints in the third round of the 2018 draft, Smith walked into New Orleans off of a huge season. In 2017 he caught 59 passes for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also added a rushing touchdown for good measure. After averaging 19.8 yards per catch in his final year with UCF, it looked like Ted Ginn Jr.’s deep threat Z-receiver role finally had its successor back in New Orleans.
Since then, we’ve seen his slot snaps increase while his playing time outside varied depending on the health and availability of other receivers.
Slot vs. Wide Snaps
99 in the slot vs. 240 out wide in 2018
190 vs. 115 in 2019
232 vs. 191 in 2020
While Smith has been productive from the slot and has averaged just over five touchdowns in each of his three seasons, you can see more of the downfield attacking ability in seasons where he spent more time out wide. While the averages are pretty steady, the opportunities have not been.
While in 2019, where Smith took only 37% of his snaps from outside, he was targeted just about once every 13 routes run, in 2018 and 2020 he spent 70.6% and 44.9% of his time out wide and piled on a target every 7.4 snaps in 2018, and every 8.4 in 2020.
The 2020 season for Smith was an unpredictable one considering the amount of time missed by receivers, mostly notably Michael Thomas, throughout the season. However, it showed that his versatility is still viable and that he could be a reliable primary option.
Of course, big plays and deep passing can be generated from the slot. So the condensing of offense over the last couple of years has to be explored as well.
Career 20+ yard targets (# of 20+ yard targets)
37.9% of targets in 2018 (9)
16% in 2019 (4)
8.6% in 2020 (4)
Average depth of target (ADOT) since 2018
12.8 in 2018
9.6 in 2019
9.6 in 2020
As each season passes, you can see a clear decline in 20+ yard targets downfield. Now some of this has to do with the roles Smith had to play. Particularly in 2020 when he had to serve a more Michael Thomas-like role while the record-setter was out with injury. But even in games where both Smith and Thomas were present, the downfield attacking routes just weren’t as available.
This is a look at a play from the Saints’ wildcard playoff game in 2011 against the Detroit Lions. This is on a 2nd and 17 in the fourth quarter. Despite two completely open underneath options, the offense is designed to stretch the field. At the top of the screen, Robert Meachem is separating from his corner while the inside-breaking route is beginning to carry the safety. Drew Brees would connect with Meachem on this play for a 56 yard touchdowns.
You can see three deep routes, 20+ yards downfield, two with straight-line trajectory and a third post route still pushing deep though also inside.
This is a look at another play, but this time Week 4 of the 2020 season hosting the Los Angeles Chargers. This snap, just like the 2nd and 17 above was run from a variation of a bunch formation. This time on a 2nd and 6 but in similar field position, usually an area to take a shot downfield. This time, we see a similar combination up top with one vertical route paired with an inside post route.
However, the target goes to the bottom of the screen, quickly after the snap for an 11-yard pickup and first down to Jared Cook.
There’s nothing wrong with the second play at all, it did exactly as it was designed to do. But looking back at 2011, you can see a clear intent to target downfield, while in 2020 the right choice was about continuing to move the chains. You can see that there is only one route with vertical trajectory as opposed to the two from the previous play.
The 2020 route combination also includes Emmanuel Sanders on the outside, starting his way back to the QB about 16 yards from the line. But the vertical/post combination (or “divide” concept) is one that 10 years ago had time to develop and forced defenses to abandon underneath as seen in the first example.
You can tell from Smith’s discussion with the media that he expects those opportunities to return in 2021 based on what he’s seen in the early portion of offseason work.
Tre'Quan says #Saints QB Jameis Winston told him, "Whatever you do, don't stop running." Said that Jameis says he wants to stretch the ball down the field.— Christopher Dunnells (@ChrisDunnells) June 9, 2021
Smith was the one running the vertical route against the Chargers in the second example. Perhaps in 2021, he’ll be the one getting the target.
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