The 2018 wide receiver class was known as a thick, but starless group at the time of its drafting. Two years in, it’s definitely thick, but stars are beginning to emerge. All of Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, D.J. Moore, and Michael Gallup have an argument not only as the top dog in the class but as upper-echelon receivers in the league altogether. I made the case for Gallup most recently—as his success seems the most underappreciated to me—but all four are great talents, and they aren’t alone. D.J. Chark, Christian Kirk, and James Washington fill out the top of a thick second tier.
Earlier this week, I featured Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who has a bigger and more deserved role carved out for him in the Falcons’ offense. This article will look at Saints WR Tre’Quan Smith, who had a similar opportunity in 2019, but wasted it.
When Smith was drafted in 2018, the Saints envisioned him growing into the field-stretcher role that Ted Ginn was currently filling. But after Ginn lost the majority of the season to injury, Smith was thrown into the fire as a rookie and responded fairly well. Only Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, and Benjamin Watson would beat out Smith in total targets that season for the Saints, making him the de facto WR2. Smith was third among all rookies in yards per target, joining fellow field stretchers Robert Foster and Dante Pettis at the top of the list; and he was seventh in yards per route run, between Christian Kirk and Courtland Sutton.
But in 2019, when Ginn returned to health and took the field for New Orleans, Smith faded into obscurity. After seeing about 20% of his targets come deep in 2018, Smith saw a small dropoff to 16%; after catching 44% of his deep targets in 2018, Smith’s number fell dangerously to 25%. The Saints offense funnels targets to Thomas at an unprecedented rate, and it’s at the expense of their other receivers. Once Ginn wrested his role back from Smith, the Saints’ new WR3 was good for 25 targets over 11 games, as injury hampered him and sapped his athleticism.
But in 2020, Ginn is fully gone, not just injured like he was in 2018 when Smith had to learn the job on the fly. He’s signed in Chicago this year and Smith is fully ready to take over his role… right?
Not necessarily. Emmanuel Sanders enters the picture as the Saints’ big attraction on offense: finally, a WR2 for Drew Brees and Michael Thomas! Of course, WR2 has never been higher than the fourth-biggest target-getter since Alvin Kamara joined the Saints’ roster. But Sanders, a talented player who averages more than 100 targets/season in his career, is likely to demand a higher volume of targets at that role than any previous WR2. Some of those new targets will come from Thomas’ horde of opportunity; some will come from Kamara and Cook, the shifty scatback and seam stretching tight end, and some will come from the lower levels of WRs as well.
As such, Smith is no higher than WR3 on this depth chart, and even that’s a short leash, given his health and performance concerns over last season. The only spark of good news is the redundancy between Sanders and Thomas’ skill sets: both are great short to intermediate players who gel well with Brees’ quick-game expertise. Neither are true field-stretchers who can win deep with speed like Smith. Whether or not the Saints and Brees, who had the fourth-lowest depth of target last season, actually want to go deep is up for debate—but if they do, Smith is perhaps their best option outside of Cook.
Smith has been able to separate deep across his unsteady career, both from wide and slot alignments. He’s a long body with good open-stride speed and great explosiveness to quickly generate separation against trail coverage, and has the ability to make some nice adjustment catches at extension.
The hurdle for Smith to overcome is making those targets worth it to Brees. The current Saints offense is the most effective nickel-and-dime offense in the NFL, and they figure only to become more hyper-efficient with the addition of Sanders. Deep shots are not nearly as necessary for Brees in New Orleans as they are for Ryan Fitzpatrick in Miami or Matthew Stafford in Detroit, where the skill sets of the wide receivers and structures of the offenses lend themselves to heaving up frequent prayers.
To make these targets worth it, Smith must haul in contested catches and remain healthy, proving to Brees that he’s worthy of the same trust that Thomas is, or Cook is. If he can’t do that early on in the season, Brees will continue to give him the occasional glance on the outside or quick look in the red zone—where Smith has been fairly effective in his career—but nothing more than that.
The role is available for the taking in New Orleans for Smith, and to bring only what Kenny Stills did for two seasons in New Orleans (4.3 targets/game, 16.5 yards/reception, 11.8 yards/target) would be enough to consider Smith on the upswing in his career. Such a stat line is achievable for Smith, should he find the groove he had in 2018 when Ginn’s job was available to him. But it will require immediate results, for as soon as he proves an empty target, Brees will favor Sanders over the middle on every snap, and Smith will fail to garner enough volume to make a mark on this offense. If that happens, Smith will have to wait for his contract to expire to search for a career renaissance somewhere with a more willing deep passer.