Since the arrival of Cam Newton to the Panthers, Steve Smith has returned to Top-20 fantasy status - and he's played all 32 games over the last two years as well. After the disastrous 2010 campaign (14 games played with 100 targets for 46/554/2 receiving) while Jimmy Clausen/Matt Moore/Brian St. Pierre were under center for the Panthers, Smith has put up 129 targets for 79/1,394/7 receiving during 2011 and 138 targets for 73/1,174/4 receiving during 2012 serving as Cam Newton's 'go-to' receiver. Smith has been rejuvenated by the arrival of a franchise-quality quarterback. However, Smith turned 34 this year (May 12), and now has absorbed 12 seasons of NFL-level hits from opposing defensive backs. Will this be the year that Smith's age and the accumulation of hits catch up with the speedy wideout?
Considering Smith's average yards per catch, it doesn't appear that he is slowing down (relative to earlier in his career), as the 17.6 yards per catch he averaged during 2011 was the second-highest average in his career to date, and the 16.1 yards per catch from 2012 tied for the third-best average among the 12 NFL seasons he's played.
During 2011 he had six 100-yard games, and caught three or more passes in 13 of 16 contests, with at least one reception in every game. During 2012, Smith posted five 100-yard games and snagged three or more passes in 15 out of 16 games played, with one reception in the other contest last season. In short, Smith has been consistently productive almost every game since Cam Newton arrived in Carolina.
This year, the mix of personnel around Smith has changed somewhat with Domenik Hixon arriving from the New York Giants and Ted Ginn landing in Charlotte after three seasons in San Francisco. Ginn isn't really much of a threat to drain receptions away from Smith as he is primarily a returner these days. Hixon has flashed the ability to post the occasional 100+ yards receiving effort over his six-year career, but he's never been consistently productive (he had one 100+ yards receiving game last year, with 11 targets for 6/114/0 back in Week Four on the way to 59 targets for 39/567/2 receiving for the season). Smith's sidekick in Charlotte, Brandon LaFell, has spent his entire career in Charlotte and has never been more than a marginal contributor - he set career bests in receptions, yards, and TDs last season with 76 targets for 44/677/4 receiving to his credit, and boasted of zero 100+ yards receiving games during 2012. As you can see, there isn't much reason to worry about Smith being displaced as the top wideout on the Panthers this year.
One other reason to find Smith highly attractive as a fantasy wide receiver is the NFC South's dearth of quality pass defenders. Aside from the Panthers' 13th-ranked unit, Atlanta ranked 23rd last year averaging 242.4 net passing yards allowed per game, New Orleans was 31st averaging 292.6 net passing yards allowed per game, and Tampa Bay was 32nd averaging 297.4 net passing yards allowed per game. Three of Smith's five 100+ yards receiving games came against the NFC South (11 targets for 7/106/0 vs. Tampa Bay in Week One; four for 3/104/0 vs. New Orleans in Week Two; 12 for 7/109/0 vs. Atlanta during Week 14), and he averaged 84.2 yards receiving per game against divisional opponents (28 receptions for 505 yards vs. the NFC South last year), although, curiously, he didn't find the end-zone vs. divisional rivals last year. In any case, it is definitely a good idea to start Smith the weeks that he faces a divisional opponent, as you can see.
Mark Wimer 75/1,200/6 receiving
Message Board consensus 78/1,200/6
- Smith is very simpatico with Newton and it doesn't appear there is any reason for this to change during 2013
- Smith is heavily targeted and consistently productive week in and week out, making him an attractive option for fantasy owners
- Smith has the ability to post big games and does so fairly regularly (about 1/3 of the past two seasons he's been above 100 yards receiving in a given game)
- The NFC South has some of the league's weakest pass defenses - Atlanta was 23rd in the NFL last year averaging 242.4 net passing yards allowed per game, while New Orleans was 31st averaging 292.6 net passing yards allowed per game, and Tampa Bay was 32nd averaging 297.4 net passing yards allowed per game. Smith gets to face each of those defenses twice during 2013.
- Smith is 34 years old now and is approaching the final years of his NFL career - this is especially relevant to fantasy owners in dynasty leagues
- The lack of a high-caliber complimentary wide receiver on the other side of the offense means that opposing DBs can single Smith out for extra attention week in and week out
- Smith has a volatile temper and has been suspended in past years for fighting with teammates.
Steve Smith is aging like fine wine - he keeps refining his craft and achieving at a very high level. As Cam Newton's favorite target, Smith will continue to see a high number of passes week in and week out. He should wind up among the top-20 wide receivers at the end of this season, as usual.
Responses from the Message Board
Steve Smith was an afterthought at best for me going into 2013, but I found myself forced to take a closer look when I've seen him slip past WR30. Sure, the combination of his age and this offense means that his days of 100 receptions are over, but he finished last year with a flukishly low 4 touchdowns, yet still managed to finish as WR19. In the last 10 years, he has not finished outside of the top 20 except for when he missed 15 games in 2004 and when he had to play with Jimmy Clausen as his starter. That includes some really bad Delhomme years and quite a few Matt Moore games, not to mention a lot of those were 14-15 game seasons. Inn 2013, the receiving corps looks to be the same, so it is hard to imagine he won't see a similar number of targets as he has the past two years (128 and 138). Last year Newton actually threw less than he did in 2011 and completed a lower percentage of his passes. Should he improve rather than regress, then Smith could see numbers closer to his 2011 totals where he finished WR6 (he caught 62% of his targets that year compared to just 53% last year). It is unlikely he'll reproduce his 17.6 ypr, but 79 receptions is not out of the question.
So long as Smith is healthy in 2013, I think he's a great value play as a virtual lock for mid-WR2 points at a WR3 pricetag. Of course if you feel like your team is lagging behind after 6 rounds and you need someone with WR1 upside, then this is not the WR3 you are looking for.