If the 2015 NFL Draft reaffirmed one thing about Trent Baalke and his approach to roster construction it’s this: the 49ers GM has a comfort level with risk that few of his peers can rival. In the risk-adverse culture of the NFL — where decision makers have little incentive to break from the norm and are frequently applauded for playing it safe — Baalke’s risk-friendliness sticks out. Nowhere is it more apparent than when draft day rolls around, when Baalke routinely rolls the dice on talented players with injury concerns knowing they have zero chance of contributing right away.
DeAndre Smelter, wide receiver out of Georgia Tech, is the latest member of the All-ACL team. His selection in the fourth round of this year’s draft marks the seventh pick1 Baalke has used on an injured prospect in the past three drafts. Like many of his NFI-destined predecessors, Smelter possesses the type of physical tools that could make him a high-impact player down the road, but a significant injury (torn ACL) could very well keep him off the field for the entirety of his rookie season.
Rehab concerns aside for a moment, the former Yellow Jackets receiver is an intriguing prospect who received a lot of sleeper discussion in the draftnik community. Smelter posted an impressive 18.9 yards per reception during his two seasons in college, scoring once every five times he caught the ball. That sort of production led to a solid projection from Playmaker Score, Football Outsiders’ wide receiver projection system, but also comes with a massive asterisk.
Like Stephen Hill, Demaryius Thomas, and Calvin Johnson before him, Smelter’s rate stats are heavily inflated by being the lone receiving threat in Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack.2 The defense’s heavy focus on the running game leads to some very favorable situations for the Yellow Jackets’ receivers while also contributing to those same receivers having considerable work to do before becoming polished NFL receivers. Let’s go to the tape and look at what Smelter will have to do to become more Johnson and Thomas, and less Hill, when all is said and done.
Where He Wins
Smelter isn’t going to wow many people with his athleticism, and though not slow, it’s unlikely you’ll see him running past many NFL cornerbacks. Instead, he’s going to have to win by out-muscling his opponents. The 6–2, 226-pound receiver compares physically to big, physical players such as Dez Bryant and Anquan Boldin coming out of school, and he knows how to use that large frame to shield defenders from the ball and win at the catch point. Smelter did most of his work on vertical routes in college, many of which were fade-stops or back-shoulder throws that allowed him to utilize his size advantage to go up and high-point the football. He didn’t bring down 50–50 balls with the frequency you would hope for — mostly due to an issue we’ll get to later — but he flashes enough to make you believe he can win in this area at the NFL level.
After the catch, Smelter is a problem for defenses. He didn’t get a ton of YAC chances thanks to Georgia Tech’s offense sending him deep on the majority of their limited passing attempts, but Smelter took advantage whenever the opportunity arose. Combining good short-area quickness with a powerful stiff arm, he’s consistently able to make the first defender miss and his physicality makes him a handful to get to the ground in the open field. In the video above, you can see Smelter unfairly abusing cupcake schools on GT’s schedule like Wofford and Georgia Southern, but his ability after the catch showed up in ACC games as well, albeit less often.
Blocking is often the first thing mentioned when discussing Smelter’s game — another byproduct of the Yellow Jackets’ run-heavy offense. Smelter is more than willing as a run blocker, both at the line of scrimmage and downfield on longer runs, and can be devastating on crack-back blocks. But as much fun as it is to watch highlights of Smelter lighting up unsuspecting defenders, blocking isn’t going to get him on the field at the next level. There are a number of things Smelter needs to work on as a receiver during his redshirt season if he hopes to contribute in year two.
Where He Needs To Improve
It’s always concerning when hands shows up on the list of weaknesses for a receiver, but that’s where we are with Smelter. Put simply, he’s not a natural pass catcher. Smelter has massive hands, but rarely uses them to his advantage. With the exception of passes thrown above his shoulders, the ball finds its way into Smelter’s body on nearly every reception. In college, this didn’t pose much of a problem. With defenses focused on shutting down GT’s option attack, and the passing game consisting of predominantly downfield throws, Smelter saw a ton of off coverage and defenders were rarely in position to get a hand on the ball when it arrived.
The play at the 1:18 mark in the video above illustrates what will happen more often if Smelter continues to body catch with NFL cornerbacks covering him. Virginia cornerback Maurice Canady is sitting on the comeback route, fights through Smelter’s push-off attempt at the top of the route, and is able to get his inside arm around the big receiver to knock the pass down. If Smelter extends to make the catch with his hands away from his frame, he can keep the ball out of Canady’s reach and prevent him from breaking up the pass.
Even on plays when Smelter does attempt to use his hands, he looks more like a mechanical claw flailing at a stuffed animal in a crane machine than a receiver catching a football.3 Smelter will have his work cut out for him — learning to catch passes away from your frame isn’t an easy skill to master. But it will be critical that he makes at least some strides in this area.
Smelter didn’t run anything resembling a complete route tree in college, and as a result, he’s not the most polished route runner. He showed some proficiency on comeback and curl routes where he could use his strength to create separation at the top of the route and his size to shield the defender from the ball. Smelter was also effective selling the double move, creating wide open touchdowns on a couple plays and drawing penalties on a few others. But the rest needs work.
Smelter has little to no experience running any of the routes in the NFL’s quick passing game — slants, hitches, quick outs, and the like didn’t exist in Georgia Tech’s passing game. He also rarely had to deal with press coverage. Again, most cornerbacks gave Smelter a healthy cushion knowing he headed deep more often than not. Of the five games I watched, only Clemson aligned a corner in Smelter’s face with any regularity, and even the Tigers’ corners rarely looked to get physical with him at the line of scrimmage.
His size and physicality makes me think Smelter can win against the press, but he just didn’t have to in college, making it more difficult to project how he’s going to fare when facing physical corners like Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson at the next level.
The Bottom Line
Smelter has a lot of work to do before he’ll be ready to contribute. Much like Blake Bell, there are a lot of physical tools that make you excited about Smelter’s potential two or three years from now, but he still needs to master the basics of playing the position. In several ways, San Francisco was an ideal landing spot for Smelter. In order for him to maximize his ability, Smelter needed to go somewhere that would demonstrate patience with both his injury recovery and developmental needs. If history is any indication, he should get that in San Francisco with the added bonus of tutoring under Anquan Boldin, a similar type of receiver that represents the absolute best-case scenario for Smelter’s career.
Tank Carradine, Marcus Lattimore, Brandon Thomas, Keither Reaser, Kaleb Ramsey, Trey Millard, and Smelter. ↩
Smelter’s numbers never quite approached the production of Johnson, Thomas, or even Hill, but the general point remains. ↩
Watch plays at the 1:02 mark of the hands video and 1:32 mark of the contested catches video for examples. ↩