It’s clockwork. At every bar and every wedding, when there’s roughly 30 minutes left in the evening, the DJ spins Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” We know its coming, and we’ve been beaten down by the ballad to the point of nausea over time, but it’s nearly impossible to resist crooning the chorus or that opening keyboard riff while inebriated.
It’s also clockwork that we’re going to pen an article suggesting that this is the season that Torrey Smith is going to breakout and be a fantasy dynamo. Last year’s model suggesting that Smith was a strong buy was done by Bryan Fontaine. Since he is currently taking a fantasy football analyst visit to Joshua Tree, I’ve decided to pick up the torch this summer.
The reason I’m obligated to take on this task is that I’m abnormally high on Smith coming into 2014. Papa RotoViz has already labeled Smith as undervalued and a player to target in the middle rounds of drafts, but he and the staff have him ranked at No. 24 overall for this season with Shawn Seigele the highest on him at 19. I don’t do redraft rankings in house because I’m obligated to do them for another affiliation, but I’m the only one in the entire industry who currently has Smith labeled as a WR1 this season. Maybe I’m still at the bar operating half mast, but I’m going to explain why, when it comes to Smith being a fantasy WR1, you don’t stop believin’.
The Ghost of Torrey Past – What We Already Know
Coming out of Maryland in 2011, the closest comparison for Smith in my model was Roddy White. As a matter of fact, it’s almost freakishly scary how closely they match.
|Player||Draft||RY Age||Ht||Wt||MS YD||MS TD||40YD||Bench||Vert||Broad||20YS||3C|
*Final Season Market Share Numbers
Athletically and production-wise, they are pretty much clones except that Smith got started at a much earlier age. White was a first round draft selection that wasn’t the PPR Gibraltar that we know today. He was a guy who strictly relied on splash plays early in his NFL career. He was also a guy we waited on for three years to do anything tangible. If you’re looking for a take that isn’t metric-based, here’s a scout-based suggestion that Smith and White were very similar prospects. Smith was a better producer at an earlier age in college and that transitioned into the NFL; check out the NFL Career Graphs for each.
Smith already has gotten the ball rolling downhill much quicker than White did, who didn’t post a top 20 fantasy season until his third season in the league. Their third years are similar, but Smith has notched three top 24 overall finishes to start his career.
Smith has essentially been the same player overall for fantasy purposes in each of his first three seasons. Even though he’s slightly improved his total output each season, it’s really only carried over by ever increasing volume. The heavy amount of down field targets he sees has always made him appear to be a really inefficient player. No wide receiver in the entire league has more targets over 20 yards downfield over the past three seasons than Smith. Those 121 targets account for 35 percent of his career target total, masking what has been strong underlying production.
I do a little metric known as the Target Multiplier. In short it’s pretty much the fantasy football version of adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). I take all of the targets to a WR, run the fantasy points generated for his quarterback, and then scale that versus how he performed in his own system. So similar to market shares concepts, we’re judging WRs based on performance in their own teams’ passing game. Out of the 37 receivers that had 100 or more targets last season, Smith ranked sixth and on average a target to him was worth 47 percent more fantasy points for his quarterback than targeting another player in the Ravens’ passing game.
|Player||Team||Targets||Rec||Yds||TD||INT||QB PT/TGT||PT/TGT Rest of Team||TGT X|
From a real football perspective, you can check out our AYA App. Pulling that up, Smith has also been the best target that Joe Flacco has ever consistently used. Out of the 11 different players that Flacco has completed at least 40 passes to, who do you think sits at the very top of the list? Spoiler alert, it’s Smith.
Now those two points are also aided by the fact that recent Ravens’ teams haven’t had a crew of pass catchers that rival the 1999 Rams.
The Ghost of Torrey Present – The Gary Kubiak Effect
J.J. Zachariason wrote a piece on how good of a hire Kubiak was and how he’s going to improve Baltimore’s passing game. Justin Winn has already let you know that not only will Kubiak and his system that stems from being a Shanaclan disciple be good for Flacco, but also for Smith. One common thing you always hear from fantasy scribes about Kubiak is that apparently he stifled the career of Andre Johnson by not involving him in the red zone. Take a look at Johnson’s red zone usage throughout his career as well as Smith’s thus far.
|Player||Year||RZ TGT||MS TGT %||TD||RZTDR|
|Year||RZ TGT||MS TGT %||TD||RZTDR|
*Only stats were used from games Johnson was active for MS%
Kubiak came on board with Houston in 2006, for Johnson’s fourth season (wink). In that season, Johnson had his largest market share percentage of red zone targets in his career up to that point and tallied over a fifth of all Houston’s RZ targets in every season under Kubiak except for one. You need to feed the trolls sometimes, so 2012 is your outlier season to go ahead and create the narrative that Kubiak doesn’t involve his lead WR near the paint. Any other low overall output was a result of missed playing time.
Smith just crossed the 20 percent barrier in MS% this past season for the first time. While he regressed in that area of the field, he has always been a solid a red zone performer dating back to college. Even if he doesn’t positively regress to his ceiling in the red zone, his slice of targets stands a good chance of increasing.
The second area Kubiak will help Smith reach the expectations I’m placing on him is that he can get Smith cheap points. As already mentioned, Smith has been used almost solely as a one trick pony that has taken baby steps to becoming a complete receiver. Fontaine was anticipating this to happen a year ago; he just needed the proper coach. Not only does Kubiak pepper his lead WR with targets, he moves them around just enough as well.
|Year||Player||TGT||MS TGT %||Slot TGt||Slot TGT%|
|Year||Player||TGT||MS TGT %||Slot TGt||Slot TGT%|
Even though Smith’s targets have climbed, he still hasn’t sniffed the market share totals that Johnson has had over his career. Smith also hasn’t been given much of an opportunity to add easy receptions and use his athleticism underneath thus far, something Kubiak will surely do. Expecting Smith to gobble up a bunch of intermediate targets in an offense that is returning Dennis Pitta and adding Steve Smith and Owen Daniels is unlikely to happen. But Smith doesn’t have to be Johnson in this regard, he just needs some smoothing in this area. Smith never needs to be a 90 catch receiver to be a fantasy behemoth; getting to the 75 catch area is all he needs to do for heavy damage. Just look at what gaining a smattering of inside work did for another lid popper in DeSean Jackson a year ago. Besides, White never ran more than 11 percent of his routes from the slot until his fourth season (wink).
The Ghost of Torrey Future – Projections and Strategy
Looking at the WR Similarity Scores App, you’ll see Smith has a fairly neutral plot that could move in either direction. Time is indeed a flat circle and look at who shows up as a positive comp. Roddimus Prime makes another cameo from his breakout campaign in 2007, which comps to Smith’s 2013. In 2008, White went on to be the sixth-highest scoring WR.
The other reason I personally believe that Smith is about to reach lead fantasy receiver status is that we’ve already seen it in a fragmented stretch. Hitting the Games Splits App, look a the damage Smith was doing over the initial five weeks of 2013.
I’m fully aware that I’m cherry-picking statistics here but I assure you that it’s not only to massage my narrative. If the results were more scattershot throughout the season, I wouldn’t care as much, but this was a consistent five-week stretch. In every game, Smith had at least 85 receiving yards, eight targets, and four receptions and wasn’t aided a lick by touchdown inflation. This is where the return of Pitta and what appear to be marginal free agents help him in my opinion, because the Raven’s still project to struggle running the football this season.
His hot start in conjunction with the Ravens being a mess on offense allowed opposing defenses to allocate extra resources to defending him. That may ultimately prove to be the main counterpoint to my argument, because he was able to be taken away, but for fantasy purposes, there’s no reason he can’t get there.
The final point I will make is that Smith fits nearly every fantasy strategy perfectly. As noted, he’s being selected in the mid-20s among his position, which will cost you a late fourth or early fifth in draft equity. If you’re going with a Zero RB approach, he can occupy your flex. If you want to use a RB X 3 tactic, he can be your second WR. If somehow he slides in your draft just a round, he can be your lead target on your Robust squad. Even if you don’t believe in everything I’ve said thus far, the fact remains that he’s not really able to be arbitraged in drafts.
The average ADP for his comps is dragged down by Jarrett Boykin; the other three are actually selected ahead of him. At worst case scenario, Smith’s fantasy floor is just becoming the new Vincent Jackson. But as far as where I stand on the matter, you can catch me on the midnight train, going anywhere.