Is Torrey Smith capable of taking the next step from deep threat to all-around WR?
Heading into the 2012 season, Ravens receiver Torrey Smith presented an interesting case. Billed by some as a potential breakout fantasy player entering his second year, Smith basically repeated his rookie season. In total, that was pretty good:
Torrey Smith, First two seasons
But as is befitting a young wideout, Smith was entirely too up-and-down to allow you to feel comfortable using him last year. He scored five fantasy points or fewer in eight regular-season games, while scoring double-digit points in six games. He also caught two passes or fewer in eight games.
However, that was with Anquan Boldin around. Given Smith's 4.43 speed and Boldin's limited wheels at age 32, Smith was always likely to see more work downfield, and while downfield targets offer higher rewards, they also lead to higher variability. We can quantify this by looking at how far down the field these two WRs were targeted in '12:
2012 Targets Breakdown
Now, Smith didn't just run straight down the field with his hand in the air. I went back and watched all 49 of his grabs from last season, and was impressed with his ability to hook, in-cut and out-cut. However, it's clear from the target numbers that Joe Flacco preferred throwing the shorter stuff to the bigger, more polished Boldin (as well as tight end Dennis Pitta, who had 80 targets of less than 20 air yards last season).
But because Boldin will play for the San Francisco 49ers this season, there's an opportunity for Smith to inherit some of the higher-percentage routes on which Boldin subsisted. The Ravens' depth chart at WR behind Smith is pedestrian: Jacoby Jones, Tandon Doss, Tommy Streeter and Deonte Thompson. (Someone like Brandon Lloyd could be a fit in Baltimore, but nobody would mistake him for the burly Boldin.) Could Smith therefore vault into the 150-plus-target neighborhood, which would likely put him inside the NFL's top 10? I don't rule out the possibility, but history isn't on Smith's side. In his five-year pro career, Flacco has never had a 150-target player:
Most Single-Season Targets, Ravens Since 2008
Famously, Flacco also has never had a 4,000-yard passing season or a top-16 fantasy wideout. In addition, take a look at where Smith and Boldin made their catches laterally last season:
Location of Receptions, 2012 Season
In his two pro seasons, Smith has a mere six catches between the hashes. In that same span, Boldin had 26. I don't want to say Smith can't be a force over the middle merely because he hasn't in the past, but he'll have to prove it in '13. And for a guy his size, it'll be a stretch. Smith is 6-feet and 205 pounds, and it's mighty tough to find players his size who line up primarily on the outside and catch passes going over the middle. (Smith ran just 36 of his 479 routes from the slot in '12.) Mike Wallace, a player to whom Smith is sometimes compared, has never had a season where he caught more than seven passes between the hashes. DeSean Jackson is also a smaller burner and had some early success over the middle (11 between-the-hash grabs in '09), but has gotten his bell rung enough that it's really no longer part of his repertoire.
As I see it, Smith has a few different paths to a top-20 fantasy WR season:
1. He could become a high-usage WR, but that likely would require him to run more routes over the middle and/or out of the slot. The Ravens have made a lot of noise about how Smith needs to "step up" in '13, but are they really ready to put him in the slot a bunch, lessening the impact of his wheels? If so, Greg Jennings (at least in his Green Bay Packers incarnation) could be a model for Smith in this regard.
2. He could become a major red zone presence, but in 2012 his 10 red zone targets were tied for 41st among WRs. (Boldin had eight last season.) If that happens, we'd be looking at a potential transformation into a Roddy White or Reggie Wayne kind of player, shorter guys who get a lot of red zone looks.
3. He could make even more big plays, becoming a guy whose huge weeks outweigh the disappointment of his fallow periods. Think Vincent Jackson.
Of these options, to me the third seems likeliest to happen, but it's also difficult to count on. Smith is probably good for high-single-digit TDs no matter what, but breaking free for a few extra bombs is likely a matter of luck.
But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Ravens really are planning on shaking up their WR usage and turning Smith into a true No. 1 in terms of volume and/or quality of opportunity. He's a fairly sure-handed kid and reportedly has a good head on his shoulders. You can't teach speed, plus Boldin is gone. For me, the likeliest scenario is that he remains mostly an outside receiver, and we see No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson step into the limelight, becoming an over-the-middle threat alongside Pitta. But the chance that I'm incorrect in this conclusion is what gives Smith inviting upside. I've currently got him 28th in my personal ranks, but I also understand the argument that, as a seventh-round pick in a standard ESPN league, Smith offers a tantalizing ceiling.