What do TEs Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron and QB Alex Smith have in common? Each player vastly outperformed expectations last year. The reason could largely be attributed to changing circumstances. Cameron and Thomas elevated themselves to starter-level players on their teams whose system could take advantage of those talents. All that was needed was to spot the opportunity change and the fact that the system would leverage their skills. In Smith’s circumstances, he found a team led by Andy Reid that will utilize his QB in productive ways and minimize risk. Despite missing a game, Smith still broke 300 fantasy points.
Let’s look at four areas that may lead to a conclusion on the fantasy projections for Torrey Smith: (a) his career trend, (b) impact of an offensive coordinator change, (c) change in personnel surrounding Torrey Smith and (d) the variance of performance of a team’s WR1 on the fantasy ranks. I will then integrate these factors come to a conclusion
Torrey Smith’s Career Trend
T. Smith is entering his fourth year in the league. His targets have progressed each year (95 to 110 to 137). However, his catch rate has been below 50-percent in each of the last two seasons; overall, he’s only managed to catch 48-percent when he was the targeted receiver on the play. Smith’s touchdowns have varied from 7 to 8 to 4 despite his red zone targets increasing from 9 to 11 to 17.
When examining the catch-rate of top-24 WRs, on average, they catch about 60-percent of their targets. In fact, over the last three years, only three players have finished as top-24 WRs despite catching fewer than 50-percent of their targets. These players were Brandon Lloyd in 2011, Vincent Jackson in 2012 & 2013 and Smith in 2013. Smith finished the season ranked WR23 in scoring after finishing as WR30 then WR28 in his first two seasons. He has improved each year, although the rate of improvement has slowed.
Offensive Coordinator Change Impact
Gary Kubiak is replacing Cam Cameron as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator this year. Over the last four years, Kubiak’s Texans ran the ball a couple percent more times than did Baltimore. Most of this difference is attributed to the tight ends and receivers. Kubiak used his tight ends a little more and his receivers a little less than Baltimore used theirs; however, Kubiak has focused more of the pass targets to his WR1 (which was Andre Johnson in Houston) compared with Baltimore. This might imply fewer total targets to wide receivers, but potentially a higher percentage of these targets could be thrown to T. Smith.
The bad news, however, is Kubiak ran more in the red zone than Baltimore and Johnson only received an average of 11.5 red zone targets per season over the last four years. I doubt Smith improves on his 17 red zone targets from last year. I’m not convinced Smith will be as productive as Johnson was in Kubiak’s offense, but I suspect he could have more passes thrown his way in 2014 than in 2013.
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Player Personnel Changes
The key additions to the Ravens' offense this year include the return of a healthy Dennis Pitta and the signings of Owen Daniels and Steve Smith. Tight ends have been involved in 85 red zone targets for Houston over the last four years. That’s almost twice as many as the aforementioned Johnson. A healthy Pitta combined with Daniels, who’s very familiar with Kubiak’s system, will likely eat into T. Smith’s opportunities to score. Of the items reviewed so far, this could be the most troubling. I suspect Smith is likely to repeat his four touchdowns from last year, but probably won’t duplicate his career high eight TDs from his second season.
As a WR1, Smith Should Be Ranked Higher
Looking at the last four years of WR1 end-of-year rankings for all 32 teams. The lowest-ranked receiver who finished atop his team in fantasy points ranked between 51st and 80th each year. However, for the lowest ranking WR1 a lot of times injuries played a role or some really bad offensive football teams were involved. Roughly a quarter of teams couldn't produce much better than a flex player as their top wide receiver scorer in fantasy football. From this context then analyzed Smith's place among other teams' WR1s. Going into the year, he seems like a better pick than eight other team’s top wide receiver (Buffalo, Carolina, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Kansas City, New York Jets, Oakland and St. Louis). I’d rank Miami’s, Philadelphia’s and Tennessee’s wide receivers close as well. If we assume Smith outperforms all of these 11 teams WR1s at the end of the year but behind all others, where would that rank him? Over the last four years the 12th lowest scoring WR1 ranked between WR24 and WR28. Torrey Smith is currently being drafted as WR26. This is obviously an inexact science since the best offenses always churn out more than one great WR (such as Chicago or Green Bay this season, to name a few). Based on Smith being the top wide receiver in Baltimore alone, doesn't make him an automatic WR2 in fantasy lineup.
In Smith’s career, he has had a slightly positive trend improving from WR30 to WR28 to WR23 in each of his years. That’s a fairly tight range and, initially, looks like he is a low-end WR2 option in 2014. I think the changing circumstances while aren't indicating a strong boost in performance, on balance will provide a little tail wind for him this year. I suspect he can repeat or exceed his targets, receptions, and yardage totals from 2013. If he can convert on a higher percentage of targets then upside could follow. I don’t look for a significantly higher touchdown production since his TDs will often come from deep balls rather than red zone looks. But, there’s not a lot of regression from the four TDs he scored in 2013 either. Smith’s ADP (60.42) is probably toward the back of the range where I would take him in drafts. He seems like a safe pick with some upside, and not a lot of downside. He’d be a really valuable pick as a third wide receiver for your fantasy team.