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Film: How Tre’Quan Smith can eat from the slot this season

Expect to see more of him there with Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook gone.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

With the New Orleans Saints parting ways with guys like Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook who played a lot of snaps as slot receivers, I think it’s safe to say that you can expect Tre’Quan Smith’s usage in the slot to ramp up in 2021.

As a rookie in 2018, he played primarily on the outside, with 402 snaps out wide and 217 in the slot (regular and postseason combined). In 2019, we saw his slot usage rise, with 290 slot snaps and 194 out wide. And in 2020, it was pretty balanced, with 370 in the slot and 315 out wide.

Last year, Jared Cook was second on the team in slot snaps with 245, and Sanders was third at 225.

Meanwhile, the up-and-coming youngster Marquez Callaway is almost primarily an outside receiver, as is Michael Thomas.

It’s no secret that head coach Sean Payton and the Saints offensive staff like to deploy big slot receivers, with guys like Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and Jared Cook, who can create mismatches against safeties, linebackers and slot corners in the middle of the field. TQS has shown flashes of being able to fit this mold, but whether it be health or just plain ole inconsistency, he hasn’t done it for an extended amount of time.

In 2019, he really showed a proficiency in the slot, catching nine of 10 targets for 119 yards and 3 TDs on slot routes. Last year, he took a bit of a step back but was still solid — grabbing 14 of 21 targets for 175 yards and 1 TD.

But it’s fair to wonder that with his skillset — as a big receiver with legit speed — if having a quarterback under center like Jameis Winston who obviously has a bigger arm than Drew Brees could be more beneficial to him.

In the past three years, coach Payton has loved getting Smith out on deep crossing routes. These utilize his size and speed simultaneously by getting him out in space, and when facing man coverage, it gives him a chance to go up and make contested catches.

Not only does this fit Winston’s skillset as a downfield passer, but it gives him some room for error. On a lot of these crossers, you’d notice the ball be behind Tre’Quan a bit, but he has the ability to fight for it at the catch point and make the play. That ability to make catches in traffic can make things a lot easier on a guy like Jameis.

And just when defenses adjust to Smith’s crossing route tendencies, that’s when you hit them an out-breaking route.

Against Atlanta last year, he scored a TD on a crossing route, then later came back with this beauty from the slot.

Notice how he sells the in-breaking route, which allows him outside access. This is that route-running development we’ve been waiting for with TQS, and he did undoubtedly improve in that area last season.

What excites me most about his potential slot presence with Jameis at QB though is the way he could potentially be a zone-buster with his “Big Slot” presence.

A lot of the time when he was targeted on slot routes from Drew Brees, it was on those crossing routes against man coverage, where Brees had plenty of time and room to float an accurate ball out to him. Jameis, on the other hand, has the velocity to fit the ball into tight windows downfield — like the play below shows.

So, this could potentially add another dimension to TQS’s game as a big slot WR who can catch the ball in tight zone windows, even if it’s in traffic.

You know, the Colston role.

Jared Cook did similar things in the offense, especially in the second half of the year in 2019 where he lit it up from the slot.

These are the types of plays I’m talking about, where the QB has faith in sticking the ball in a tight window with enclosing zone defenders because he has a receiver capable of filling the holes and catching in traffic.

This includes those seams from the #2 receiver on Four Verticals passing plays, as well as crossers off of play action vs. zone.

Smith is capable of being that guy who executes on concepts like this — maybe not at the level Colston did it, but at a respectable level. He’s just got to stay healthy all year and continue on his development track.

Who knows, maybe Jameis is just what Tre’Quan needed to break out in the perfect role for him.

What do you think about Tre’Quan Smith’s possible emergence as a “Big Slot” receiver? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @AndrewBell_98.