Permission to Fly: Tre’Quan Smith 2021 Outlook
Tre’Quan Smith is here to play! Welcome, everybody! It’s EverywhereBlair’s debut here at Team Rise or Fall, and I’m hoping to bring you a little bit more rise before that inevitable fall onto your pillowy cushion of cash winnings. Or maybe a pillowy fall onto your bank account or Bitcoin locker — you do you! But first, we need to win in order to be swimming in that virtual currency, so let’s take a look at a sleeper wide receiver for 2021 fantasy football that will make your expected value rise faster than $AMD after Covid protocols ended.
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Tre’Quan Smith’s Background
Tre’Quan Smith is entering his 4th year of professional football out of the University of Central Florida, and he’ll be the New Orleans Saints’ de facto number 1 receiver for the first part of the fantasy year and possibly the whole campaign. Then why are fantasy drafters taking him 144th overall — that is, somewhere in the 12th round — as a WR4/5 option? Let’s break down why fantasy footballers are off Smith so far, and why you might want to increase your exposure to a promising player who will be getting more targets than expected.
Most experts would agree that Tre’Quan Smith has been a bit of a bust, both in the NFL and in fantasy football. Smith has always been the supposed “deep threat” in the Saints system, although the consensus thinking by experts points to the fact that Smith never meshed with former Saints’ QB Drew Brees. Let’s take a quick look at Smith’s trajectory as a player:
2018: As a rookie, Smith caught a 62-yard TD pass that helped Brees break the then-record all-time career passing yards record. The rapport between the two seemed luminous, with Smith saying to reporters, “… I thank God it was me. Now I get to go down in history with somebody famous in Hall of Famer Drew Brees. I’m glad it happened to me.”
2020: Fast forward nearly 30 games, and Tre’Quan Smith has amassed a paltry total of 46 total receptions in the NFL. NOLA.com reporter Luke Johnson began his profile of Smith by saying, “If the 2019 season taught Tre’Quan Smith anything, it is that nothing is promised beyond the present moment.” Yowza! Smith spent much of 2019 injured, and that NOLA.com article indicated Smith planned to get back on the field more often by receiving massages — a self-care regimen recommended to him by teammate Michael Thomas.
Although Smith stayed on the field more and started 10 games for the Saints in 2020 while Thomas struggled through injuries, he amassed only 50 targets and 34 receptions. Smith finished 5th on the team in targets and receptions despite being the Saints’ WR2 for most of the year. Translated for fantasy managers: that’s a paltry target share.
So, why should fantasy managers be excited about Tre’Quan Smith, a player who has put up fewer career yards and receptions than his fellow teammate (and running back!) Alvin Kamara did in 2020 alone? Let’s dive into the deeper stats to see why Tre’Quan Smith is likely to exceed his ADP value in 2021.
For fantasy football, opportunity drives everything. You want to draft players who are on the field (i.e. snaps), and players who are getting targets (i.e. target share). The reason that Michael Thomas was such a coveted fantasy football receiver in 2020 was due to his incredible number of targets: 149/147/185 from 2017-2019 respectively. As you likely know, this past week Michael Thomas underwent foot surgery to repair lingering structural issues, and Thomas will likely miss games through at least October if not longer. This vaults Tre’Quan Smith — who is now the most senior receiver on the active Saints’ roster — into the coveted wide receiver 1 role on the Saints.
In other words, Smith is slated to receive the most snaps and most targets of any wide receiver on the team, with his next biggest competition being running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Adam Trautman. This, my friends, is opportunity.
The Team Rise or Fall 2021 Underdog Projections has Smith slotted for 79 total targets. Of course, looking at median performance over the last three years, Smith was buried on the roster with a quarterback that lacked the arm strength to throw to his typical deeper routes (9-11 yards average depth of target). So, let’s look at what’s changing on the Saints that will allow Tre’Quan to exceed his target projection.
Change of Scenery:
As mentioned before, Smith and Brees never fully meshed as their careers advanced. Brees — although an unquestioned Hall of Fame QB — demonstrated a noticeable lack of arm strength later in his career. From 2018-2020 (the same time frame as Tre’Quan Smith’s presence in New Orleans), Brees’ intended air yards declined from 7.1 yards to 6.1 yards per attempt, while his completed air yards per completion declined from 5.9 to 5.3 yards. Keep in mind, Brees had Kamara and noted short-route runner Michael Thomas doing the heavy lifting for him.
Now, Brees has retired, and Smith will benefit from either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill at quarterback. Should Winston take over signal calling duties in New Orleans, that’s a massive benefit to Tre’Quan Smith, as Winston’s big arm had buffeted receivers like Chris Godwin and Mike Evans to 120 targets apiece with 1333 and 1157 yards in 2019, respectively. Winston is a deep passer, with 10+ intended air yards per attempt in his career. That meshes well with Tre’Quan Smith’s average depth of target, which ranged from 9-11 yards even with the short-throwing Brees helming the Saints. The problem is, most people agree that Winston will manage sideline duties with a headset to start the year as the backup QB, and the 2021 Underdog Projections envision this as well.
Taysom Hill took the vast majority of QB1 snaps while Brees was injured last year, but that doesn’t hurt Smith’s productivity nearly as much as expected. On 121 attempts — which is a reasonable number for a sample size — Hill had 7 intended air yards per attempt with 6.3 completed air yards per completion. What’s more concerning, however, is that in 4 games started, Hill targeted Smith a meager 7 times, including one game with zero targets despite Smith being on the field for 69% of the snaps. Ouch. There will be volatility in Tre’Quan Smith’s game if Hill is the QB, which affects Smith’s meager projection for 53 targets despite being the de facto WR1.
Is Tre’Quan Smith your Michael Thomas replacement? Nope, not unless his name is actually “Davante Adams.” Does Tre’Quan Smith have every bit of potential to exceed his current ADP value and put up best ball games where he finishes as your WR2 or WR3? Absolutely!
In best ball, these types of sleeper receivers are your bread and butter because they allow you to load up on more precious positions like RB and TE early in the draft. As the early-season WR1 on the Saints, Tre’Quan Smith could be poised to pick up 6-7 targets per game on the regular regardless of his QB, with potential for upwards of 10 targets of 10+ yard yards in the instance of Jameis Winston being QB. That’s the kind of explosiveness that best ball teams need to win. The only caveat is that on August 3, Tre’Quan Smith left practice early from an unspecified injury, but beat reporters indicated it didn’t appear to be serious. While we’re still early in the best ball draft seasons, I recommend increasing your exposure to Tre’Quan Smith in the 2021 fantasy football year.
Header Image Original Source: Chuck Cook — USA Today Sports
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