Steve Smith is the oldest wide receiver in the NFL. Smith is older than every single running back and every single tight end too. There aren't many non-kickers who are actually younger than him. The 37-year old defied the odds to catch 46 passes for 670 yards and three touchdowns in seven games last season. Then came the Achilles tear. A torn Achilles tendon is a devastating injury for any NFL player, not least one who is already clinging to dying embers of his career.
Michael Crabtree was the most recent example of a prominent receiver who tore his Achilles prior to Smith. The then San Francisco 49ers receiver tore his Achilles ahead of the 2013 season. He made an impressive recovery to return in Week 13 of that season but looked like a completely different caliber of athlete. Crabtree had some success but he wasn't the same player from before. His sapped athleticism lingered into the 2014 season when Crabtree struggled to separate with the same ease as before while lacking the short-area explosiveness that made him so dangerous with the ball in his hands. Crabtree endured the worst season of his career and he was 26 at the time.
A torn Achilles should have a more significant impact on Smith. It's tougher to recover the older you get and Smith's athleticism was already in decline. That's not the only health concern though. Smith will be catching passes from a quarterback who tore his ACL midway through the 2015 season. Flacco tore his ACL and MCL in Week 10 of last season. For a quarterback who has had major footwork issues since winning the Super Bowl, a knee injury of that kind could have a ripple effect on his performances.
Despite the obvious negatives surrounding Smith, he still ranks 42nd amongst wide receivers for Football Guys staffers in ppr-redraft. 42nd doesn't sound high but it puts him above Stefon Diggs, Torrey Smith, Tavon Austin, Travis Benjamin, Vincent Jackson, Sterling Shepard and Mike Thomas. Smith's own teammate, the younger, healthier Kamar Aiken, ranks 57th. Aiken caught 50 passes for 611 yards and three touchdowns in the eight games he played without Smith. Aiken shouldn't be squeezed out by the arrival of Mike Wallace and the expected return of the future Hall of Fame candidate.
Believing in Smith is believing in the mystique of a receiver who has always defied the odds. The comfort in that belief comes from his production in 2015. He had three separate 150+ yard games while catching at least five passes in five of his seven starts. Part of the reason for Smith's bloated production was the desperation of the Ravens offense as a whole. He was the primary target in an offense that was attempting 43.1 passes per game. Only two quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 passes last season threw more on a per game basis. Marc Trestman is a coordinator who wants to throw the ball more than he wants to pass, but even Trestman shouldn't expect to average more than 40 attempts per game. Even if he does, Smith won't stand out from his supporting cast in 2016 as much as he did last season. With Aiken, Wallace, Ben Watson, Crockett Gilmore, Maxx Williams and maybe Dennis Pitta or Breshad Perriman, the Ravens have a lot more options this year. That doesn't even consider fourth-round rookie Chris Moore or seventh-round rookie Keenan Reynolds.
Smith failed on 12 targets in 2015. He lost at least 173 yards and two touchdowns on those plays. Four of those 12 targets came against press-man coverage, something Smith struggled to deal with throughout the 2015 season.
Smith caught a lot of passes on this type of play last year. He generally was left wide open as teams played zone coverages that were cleared out by the streaking receiver on the opposite side of the field. On this occasion, the San Diego Chargers don't play zone. Instead, they allow Jason Verrett to play aggressive man coverage against his older opponent. Smith can't separate, showing no real explosion or sharp movements in his route across the field. An accurate pass still gives the receiver a chance to make a play, Verrett can't reach the ball but his presence impacts Smith. Smith claps his hands together as the ball flies through his hands. Verrett is an outstanding cornerback, but those are the types of plays that Smith has made throughout his career and his struggles against press-man coverage didn't just happen against the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
40 of Smith's receptions last season came against either off-man coverage or zone. He wasn't showing off the ability to consistently separate against more aggressive coverages while his famed toughness at the catch point was overshadowed by his minuscule catch radius.
This play in particular was startling to watch. Smith takes his eye off of the ball because of the defender waiting for him. He knows he is going to be hit, though he should have a chance to secure the ball and protect himself before taking that hit. Instead of reaching for the ball to secure it with both hands, Smith meekly raises one hand and slows away from the defender to let the ball fall incomplete. It was an incompletion that ended a drive. It was an incompletion that worked against every attribute that had made Smith into the fan favorite that he has been over the course of his career.
If you look at the previous play, you will see how the offense schemed Smith open to go to him on that down specifically. By lining tight to the two receivers inside of him and releasing behind them as they advanced downfield, the Ravens made it impossible for the defense to get tight to Smith at the beginning of the play. This type of play was used regularly to scheme Smith into space instead of asking him to create it on his own. Giving Smith this role is theoretically smart because he has been reliable, consistent and explosive over the course of his career. As his reliability and consistency fades, the biggest question is on his explosiveness. The only reason Smith could thrive in the role he played with the skill set flaws he showed off last year was his penchant for creating big plays.
Despite the role he was playing, Smith had 13 20+ yard plays and two 40+ yard plays in 2015. For comparison, he had 19 20+ yard plays and 7 40+ yard plays over the previous two seasons combined. The above gif shows off Smith's longest play of the season, a 50-yard touchdown reception against the Cincinnati Bengals. Smith deserves a lot of credit for his elusiveness and strength immediately after catching the ball, though the approach of the Bengals defenders was more than questionable. The most significant aspect of this play is what happens once Smith hits the open field. Smith was given a step on the deepest defender by an excellent block from Marlon Brown. Despite that step, the receiver gradually lost ground the further he advanced down the sideline. Smith barely makes it into the endzone as the signs of his physical decline are highlighted for all to see.
The trauma of a torn Achilles tendon and another year on an already aged body can only accelerate this decline.
If you're drafting Smith, your hope is that he remains in an extremely pass-heavy offense as the prioritized possession receiver. You're hoping that Mike Wallace has no impact on his production, that Kamar Aiken was a flash in the pan, that Ben Watson was also a flash in the pan, that the other tight ends remain complementary pr unavailable pieces and that Breshad Perriman isn't around to alter the identity of the passing game. There's just too much that needs to break in your favor as a Steve Smith owner in 2016. We've already seen the impact a torn Achilles can have on a top receiver and we've also witnessed the rapid decline of veteran receivers such as Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne and Roddy White. Over the past 10 years only one receiver who was 37 or older managed to crack 300 yards receiving in a season, that was Terrell Owens in 2010.
Owens had 983 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 72 receptions. The nine other qualifying receivers combined for just 1,290 yards and three touchdowns.
Smith's 2015 production was impressive but not indicative of individual excellence. That production and the backing of his whole career makes him relevant for fantasy owners in 2016, but he belongs next to the DeAndre Smelters, Tyler Boyds and Jaelen Strongs of the world rather than the Travis Benjamins, Stefon Diggs and Vincent Jacksons.