The biggest moves for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens seemed to be on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Although slowed by age, Ray Lewis, the head of the Ravens defense, retired, Ed Reed moved on to the Texans, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe hit the lottery in free agency, Cary Williams moved onto the Eagles, and Bernard Pollard was cut before being signed by the Titans. However, the biggest loss for the Ravens this offseason was on the offensive side of the ball in wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in return for a late-round draft pick.
Although Boldin was 32 years old last season and has been on a trend downward, his regular season targets still totaled 108. So how where will those targets go now? This is where I introduced to you Torrey Smith. Drafted in the second round by the Baltimore Ravens in 2011, Smith has already proven to be one of the most dynamic deep threats in the NFL. However. he’s been viewed as a No. 2 receiver for his first two seasons in the NFL, and with Boldin now in the bay area, Smith seems set to emerge.
For starters, the third NFL season is typically the breakout year for receivers. It has been for many in recent years at least. Call me¬†superstitious, but I think it’s worth talking about. Dez Bryant broke out in his third season in 2012.¬†In 2011, Bryant caught 63 passes for 928 yards and nine touchdowns. Last season, Bryant exploded for 92 catches, 1,382 yards, and 12 touchdowns and is now seen as a top five wide receiver. In Vincent Jackson’s second full season, he had 41 receptions, 623 yards and three touchdowns. In his third year, he had 59 receptions, 1,098 yards and seven touchdowns. Finally, Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas¬†had 32 receptions for 551 yards and four touchdowns in his second season. In 2012, Thomas busted out for¬†94 catches, 1434 yards, 10 touchdowns. So it’s clear that third-year receivers can sometimes pan out and become big-time stars.
Smith’s average depth of target, a stat recorded by ProFootballFocus.com (PFF), was 18.6 yards down the field in 2012, which put him tops in the league among receivers with over 50 targets. It’s no secret that Smith is a tremendous deep threat and that’s his¬†specialty. However, in 2013, with Boldin gone, he’ll have to do more in space to really thrive in the offense. When we look at his receptions, it’s clear that he’s most successful down the field. In 2012, he caught 19 passes 20 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage, seven of them for touchdowns. Joe Flacco threw no interceptions on his 60 targets to Smith on the deep ball, while on his other throws (excluding the deep ball to Smith) he averaged an interception every 43 throws that he made. Flacco’s quarterback rating on these throws was 109.4. During the rest of the season it was 87.7.
However, it’s not about what Flacco did on deep throws to Smith. In general, Flacco was 50/123, had 1,622 yards, 16 touchdowns and no interceptions. Do the math and that’s a 127.6 quarterback rating. Wowzers. Seems fantastic right? But it’s not. Flacco was only the 18th most accurate deep ball passer. So, while he didn’t have interceptions, he either overthrew (this is probably the case on most throws) or¬†under threw¬†his receiver. It’s clear he relied heavily on pure arm strength, not deep ball accuracy, when making these throws. While Flacco’s numbers to Smith are impressive, with an accuracy percentage like that, it’s a little concerning that Smith will have to rely on bombs, which he did a lot last season.
But will his role change? This is unseen. But can he change his role? Or will tight end Dennis Pitta benefit more from Boldin’s departure in the middle of the field? According to PFF, other than the deep ball, Flacco was his strongest on throws 0-19 yards between the numbers, as well as short to his right (0-9 yards). Two of those three regions — short right and center — were Boldin’s strong points. In fact, 43 percent of his catches with the Ravens over three years and 52 percent of his catches in 2012¬†came from those two areas of the field. Pitta’s numbers are similar. 65 percent of Pitta’s catches over the last two seasons (he only caught one pass as a rookie in 2010, so I threw those numbers out) and 79 percent of his catches in 2012 came in the short right and short center areas of the field.
That said, Smith is no slouch in this area of the field. 45 percent of his career receptions have come in the short right and center regions of the field. So who takes over for Boldin’s 34 receptions in the two regions where Flacco was strongest in 2012? I predict that Smith stays in the same role that he has been, but we won’t know for sure until we full get into camps. If Smith is in the same role, serving ¬†primarily deep threat, I see Pitta breaking out. Of course, that’s for another day.
To sum it up: Smith isn’t the type of receiver that’s going to bust out and be a big receptions guy. He doesn’t have the same skill-set as Boldin, therefor he seems inadequate to fill Boldin’s role. Smith is a home run hitter, his upside is Vincent Jackson. While I do think targets in the 10-19 yard range will take a boost in 2013, I don’t see him being the short yardage guy that Boldin was, because he doesn’t have the bread-basket hands that Boldin does. However, it’s not a role change — but a situation change — that will benefit Smith. Expect his targets to go up substantially, and to see huge involvement in the offense. He’s going to be expected to perform as a wide receiver No. 1 in the Ravens offense, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to fit that role of a guy who can do everything a regular No. 1 wide receiver can do (Boldin lacked this also, but not to the extent that Smith does), which also could hurt Flacco.
Again, so much is undecided, as it’s a developing situation, but my¬†prediction¬†is Pitta will step up more than Smith in 2013, in targets, in receptions, and in manning the whole that Boldin has left.