Less than an hour into 2015 NFL league year, the San Francisco 49ers made their biggest free agent splash in recent history by locking up Torrey Smith to a 5-year, $40 million deal with $8.75 million in fully guaranteed money (and an additional $13.25 million guaranteed for injury). Smith’s contract was not only the richest Trent Baalke has given out to a free agent wide receiver, it was the richest Baalke has handed out to a free agent, period.
The decision to add Smith was a logical one for the Niners. San Francisco’s deep passing game fell off a cliff last season, and their inability to stretch the field vertically played a substantial role in the team’s season-long offensive struggles. There were several contributing factors that limited San Francisco’s proficiency with the deep ball, but perhaps the most notable was a receiving corps that, while talented, flat out couldn’t separate from defenders down the field.
San Francisco’s trio of receivers — Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Stevie Johnson — were, as Boldin recently put it, "all in the same mold." All three are skilled route runners who specialize in working the short and intermediate areas of the field. Individually, there’s no denying that Boldin, Crabtree, and Johnson are all talented pass catchers capable of playing meaningful roles in a quality passing game. Collectively, however, the whole proved to be less than the sum of its parts.
With the signing of Smith, Baalke has taken the first major step in a much needed shake-up of the team’s wide receiver depth chart by adding one of the league’s premier deep threats.
Nearly half of Smith’s targets in 2014 (46.7 percent) came on throws 15 yards or more downfield, the third-highest percentage in football. Smith has seen a similar percentage of deep targets in each of his four seasons, leading all receivers in the category twice and never finishing lower than third. For comparison, among 49ers receivers targeted at least 50 times in 2014, only Crabtree (27.8 percent) saw more than one-quarter of his targets come via deep passes.
All of those deep targets have led to a lot of explosive plays. Smith trails only Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green in touchdown receptions on deep targets since entering the league in 2011, and his 16.9 yards per reception over the same time frame ranks fourth among receivers with at least 100 receptions.
Torrey Smith’s entire game is predicated on using — or threatening to use — his 4.43 speed to blow the top off the defense, and few have been better at doing exactly that. Baltimore’s usage of Smith made their feelings on how to best utilize his skillset crystal clear: chuck it deep and chuck it often.
Smith drawing the attention of two defenders was a common occurance in Baltimore, which is what we see on the play above. Safety Jim Leonhard (30) aligns in press coverage directly over Smith, at the bottom of the image, while cornerback Joe Haden (23) sits back, waiting to pick up coverage further downfield. Smith takes an outside release and his quickness off the ball prevents Leonhard from disrupting the route. At that point it’s basically game over. Despite a substantial cushion, Smith accelerates by, and replaces1, Haden. Gaining that advantagous position allows Smith to use his body to shield off Haden, giving him just enough space to seal the deal with an excellent catch.
It’s one thing to beat a safety off the line of scrimmage. In dealing with the likes of Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, defeating press coverage is a mandatory part of the job description for wide receivers in the NFC West if you hope to have any success throwing the football. While it would a look at more snaps where Smith wasn’t the target to get a more complete picture of his skill in this area, winning at the line of scrimmage was something I saw Smith do on a consistent basis.
Smith isn’t overly adept at using his hands to rid himself of a defender, and as a result he relies primarily on his quickness to beat the press.
Smith is matched up with Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner, whose forte is using his size and physicality in press coverage. Smith once again uses an outside release, skirting by Browner’s bump attempt with relative ease. Once Smith gets a step on the cornerback — as he does just five yards into the route here — it’s all over. A better ball from Flacco here produces a touchdown, but instead Smith is forced to slow down to compensate for the underthrown pass.2 Smith does a great job adjusting to Flacco’s misfire, using his body to wall off Browner — who is so desperate to catch up, he’s unable to track the ball — before pulling in the big fourth-down conversion.
If you caught the yellow laundry flying onto the field at the end of that last GIF, then you caught the element that really separates Smith’s value on deep passes from his peers: his ability to draw defensive pass interference penalties.
Few people consider yardage generated by pass interference penalties when evaluating receivers even though NFL rules make drawing DPI just as valuable as an actual reception. And during his four NFL seasons, no other receiver has been able to touch Smith’s ability to draw these flags. In 2014 alone, Smith generated 11 defensive pass interference calls. Those penalties produced an extra 229 yards for the Ravens’ offense, nearly doubling up the next closest receiver.3 As Greg Garcia points out over at Baltimore Beatdown, Smith’s lead over the rest of the field is even more staggering when looking at totals over the past four seasons.
Smith has drawn 26 defensive pass interference penalties worth a total of 571 yards that don’t show up in his receiving numbers. In second place with 262 yards, A.J. Green is actually closer to zero than he is to Smith.4 That’s a staggering difference, and considering we’re looking at four seasons worth of data, there’s a decent probability Smith continues to draw those flags in San Francisco provided the opportunity is there.
The constant threat of Smith getting behind the defense for a big play opens up opportunities for easy receptions underneath. In the play above, Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (28) is giving Smith a sizable cushion at the top of the image. Lewis is opening his hips to turn and run downfield before Smith has even eliminated that cushion, leaving him woefully out of position when Smith breaks across the middle on the short post route. Smith hauls in the reception in a vacated middle of the field, and with Lewis failing to recover in time, he’s able to tack on an extra 25 yards after the catch.
Later in that same game, Smith is matched up with Lewis once again. This time around Lewis is up at the line of scrimmage, theoretically putting him in better position to defend the underneath route. Smith accelerates up the field using an outside release — note how similar the start of the play looks compared to vertical routes in the first two plays highlighted earlier — selling the deep route in the process. The fear of getting beat deep leaves Lewis out of position once more when Smith stops suddenly and turns back to the football on the hitch route. The result is another first down for Smith and the Ravens offense.
These types of receptions popped up repeatedly when watching Smith’s film. When he wasn’t streaking down the field, Smith’s usage primarily came via the short, three-step passing game — slants, hitches, and quick outs — where he could quickly take advantage of defensive backs worried about getting beat deep for easy underneath completions.
The common narrative surrounding Torrey Smith entering free agency featured two primary components: 1) he doesn’t have the type of well-rounded game worthy of being dubbed a no. 1 receiver and 2) he’s coming off of his worst season as a pro in which he put up career lows in targets (92), receiving yards (767), and yards per catch (15.7).
After studying Smith’s 2014 targets, I can’t disagree with the first notion. Smith isn’t an accomplished route runner and struggles getting in and out of breaks at times, limiting the amount of separation he gets on intermediate routes. That lack of polish shows up in his route tree, which you can see below, where those intermediate routes show up far less frequently than the vertical or short, quick-hitting routes. Concerns about drops and his hands are probably a touch overblown, but Smith does have a tendency to cradle the ball when he catches it and he fails to consistently haul in contested passes.
However, the idea that Smith entered free agency on the heels of his worst professional campaign is a fantastic example of traditional statistics not telling the entire story. Smith’s catch rate — often the first number brought up to highlight his inconsistency — is skewed by Joe Flacco’s inaccuracy and the inordinate number of deep passes thrown his direction.5 His raw receiving totals don’t take into consideration the extra value he added by drawing a ridiculous number of defensive pass interference penalties, nor do they account for the situations in which he’s accumulating those totals.
Football Outsiders has a couple of metrics that do take these other factors into consideration in DVOA and DYAR; Smith put up career bests in both metrics, finishing eighth and 10th among receivers in DVOA and DYAR, respectively.6 His performance according to DVOA estimates Smith’s contributions were worth an additional 329 yards over what his raw receiving yardage would lead you to believe.7
Whether Smith’s skills and production merits the distinction of being a true no. 1 receiver isn’t all that important when considering the impact he can have on the 49ers’ passing game. Smith might have only one elite skill, but that skill is one San Francisco has desperately needed for years. When watching the 49ers’ passing game last season, it felt as if they were playing in the red zone on every snap. With no fear of getting beat deep, secondaries moved up, constricting the available space for receivers and shrinking the throwing lanes for Colin Kaepernick. Torrey Smith’s mere presence on the field will discourage defenses from operating this way, opening up more opportunities for Boldin and the rest of the receivers in the process.
If Smith becomes the next Mike Wallace, it’s more likely to be a result of external factors — Kaepernick continuing to struggle with his deep accuracy or Geep Chryst failing to utilize Smith in a manner that accentuates his skills — than Smith himself. Regardless of whether it ultimately works out, Baalke should be applauded for finally investing significant resources to address one of the team’s long-standing trouble spots. San Francisco’s receiving corps was in desperate need of diversification and replacing Crabtree with one of the league’s best deep threats, who happens to be entering the prime of his career, is a great first step in making that happen.
Watch Smith get directly over the top of Haden once he runs by him. It’s subtle, but it prevents Haden from keeping the advantagous inside position and makes it more difficult for Haden to make a play on the ball. ↩
Smith was robbed of at least an extra half-dozen scores over the course of the season due to this exact scenario, which is incredible considering he finished the season with 11 touchdowns on just 49 receptions. Related note: there’s no chance he maintains that touchdown rate in 2015. ↩
Jordy Nelson finished second in both categories, drawing 6 DPIs for a total of 129 yards. ↩
Boldin has also been very good at drawing DPI, generating 184 yards (13th) on 13 flags (6th) over the same time frame. Bring on those flags! ↩
Smith’s catch rate last season (53.3%) is right in line with other WRs with a similar deep target rate. ↩