Spotlight: Steve Smith

posted by Anthony Borbely on Jun 1st


Anthony Borbely's thoughts

Over the last five years, Steve Smith has averaged 83 receptions for 1226 yards and 8 TDs. In an average year, those are borderline top-ten numbers. When you consider that Smith plays for a run-first team, has never played with an elite receiver, and endured stretches of brutal play by his QBs, those numbers become even more impressive. While it may seem easy to automatically rank Smith as a Top 10 fantasy WR, there are several variables that must be considered, and most have nothing to do with Smith himself.

The first thing on the list is to take a look at Smith's stats over the last five years:

Year Targets Receptions Yards TDs
2009 130 65 982 7
2008 128 78 1421 6
2007 148 87 1002 7
2006 140 83 1166 8
2005 150 103 1563 12

As you can see, Smith has not exactly been a model of consistency. Although he has had two monster seasons, Smith has also had a couple of seasons of mid WR2 numbers. It is no coincidence that Smith's worst three seasons are years in which the Panthers had several games of brutal play from their QBs. Smith's numbers were terrible in those games and his final numbers suffered because of it. The real shame about this is that I think Smith has been equally great in every one of those years and has just been victimized by horrid play from his QBs.

There are several questions about the Panthers that will have a great effect on Smith this year. After reading this, you will notice that there are no questions about Smith himself.

Question 1: How will Matt Moore perform as the starter?

This is not an easy question, but it would be hard to fathom Moore playing as bad as Jake Delhomme did last year. Below are Smith's 2009 numbers in games started by the two QBs:

StartingQB Games Targets Receptions Yards TDs
Delhomme 11 98 46 604 4
Moore 4 32 19 378 3

A couple of things stand out to me. First, the catch percentage was below 50% when Delhomme started compared to almost 60% in Moore's starts. This shows how terrible Delhomme played. He simply could not get Smith the ball. The other thing that jumps out is the yards per game with each QB. Smith averaged almost 40 yards per game more in games with Moore under center. I do not have to tell you the importance of that number. It is the difference between a stud WR and a WR2.

While Moore played well in his five starts last year, he remains largely unproven. Regardless, it is hard to fathom Moore playing as bad as Delhomme did last year. Still, he has a lot to prove and will feel some pressure with Jimmy Clausen waiting in the wings. This leads me to the next question...

Question 2: Will Jimmy Clausen start any games this year?

This is a very important question and unfortunately, I'm not sure there is an answer right now. Moore could play well, but if the Panthers do not win, they may want to take a look at Clausen later in the year. A rookie QB is not a recipe for success for Smith, who has endured some of the most horrific QB play of any stud WR in recent years. Do I have to mention this could happen during the fantasy playoffs?

Question 3: Will the Panthers find a viable WR2?

Over the last several years, the best WR that Smith has played with is Muhsin Muhammad and everyone always wondered why the Panthers never upgraded at that position. Now, Muhammad is gone and the potential replacements are as follows:

  • Dwayne Jarrett -- 33 career receptions
  • Wallace Wright -- 8 career reception
  • Kenneth Moore -- 6 career receptions
  • Brandon LaFell -- Rookie
  • Armanti Edwards -- Rookie
  • David Gettis -- Rookie

Last year, Muhammad caught 53 passes...more than the combined career totals of the six receivers listed above. That does not inspire much confidence, does it? Fortunately for Smith, he has put up elite numbers without a lot of help from the other receivers, so the issues at WR are not quite as important as the situation at QB.

Positives

  • Smith is one of the most talented players in the league and is a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball
  • The Panthers have an exceptional running game and that helps to alleviate pressure on Smith
  • Smith has put up elite numbers despite being the Panthers' only real weapon at WR

Negatives

  • Moore is unproven at QB and the option behind him is rookie Jimmy Clausen
  • Smith is the only proven WR on the entire roster
  • The Panthers are a run-first team and occasionally have games with minimal pass attempts

Final thoughts

Steve Smith is a great player who could once again be at the mercy of things that he cannot control. Aside from the already mentioned QB and WR problems, the Panthers have several questions related to their defense. That does not affect Smith directly, but if the Panthers cannot stop anyone, they could fall out of playoff contention early. I am very concerned about this because I think the Panthers will wind up playing Clausen unless Moore plays well AND the Panthers contend for a playoff spot. I think Smith can survive with minimal production from the other WRs, but starting a rookie QB could be disastrous to him. Should that happen, the bad news is that it would likely be during the fantasy playoffs. I believe Clausen will start a handful of games and that tempers my enthusiasm for Smith. If I knew Moore would play all year and be reasonably consistent, I could easily see Smith as a top-5 WR, but I am concerned about both Moore and the overall team. I am not expecting the Panthers to contend for a playoff spot this year and for that reason, I expect Clausen to play a few games this year. That is a big factor in my outlook for Smith.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

karmarooster said:

Delhomme held back Smith last year and the change to Matt Moore will be a benefit. The Carolina formula is still they same: run the ball with Williams and Stewart, and throw it to Smith.... they have little else at WR2 or TE. In the final four games of 2009 with Moore at QB, Smith looked very nice averaged over 20 points per game PPR. He'll be a pretty good value as one of the last elite WRs available before a significant drop off.

Regarding Moore vs. Clausen - everything suggests that Moore will be the guy. Fox is loyal to his veterans, and he needs to win this season to keep his job. Clausen won't start unless things go very badly in the early part of the season, and I see no reason that Moore can't be an average NFL QB. He should perform even better than last year due to QB1 reps over offseason and training camp. Smith's per game totals for the 4 games with Matt Moore are consistent with his averages over the last 4 years. IMO Smith is a fairly predictable WR this year because most everything is the same from recent years, with the exception of a QB upgrade.

Over the past 4 seasons, Smith has averaged 9 targets/game and caught 57% of his targets. Over 16 games that's 144 targets, 82 receptions.... at his career YPC of 14.5 equals 1,189 yards. For comparison, in the last 4 games with Moore at the end of the season, he was targeted 32 times (8 per game), and caught 19 passes (59%) for 378 yards (19.8 ypc). I round up a bit on these projections as Moore should play at least as well as Delhomme at his best.

Question for the Shark Pool - what do you expect from Smith this year for YPC?

His 2008 season looks like an aberration (18.2 vs. 14.5 career), but that is really the only sample year we have for Smith with the Williams/Stewart combo and effective QB play. In Moore's 4 starts, he averaged almost 20 yards per catch. With those RBs and play-action, Smith can easily get deep in single coverage. I've projected him at 16 YPC, but I'm not so sure about that. The receptions and TDs seem much more predictable. If he were to average 18 per catch, that would boost his yardage up around a stellar 1,500.

Bird said:

No offense to that other guy in New York but this is the year Steve Smith of Carolina gets his name recognition back. Carolina will remember that it doesn't matter if he catches the ball two yards behind the line of scrimmage or 20 yards past it. The important thing is to just get his hands on the ball as he is a playmaker who makes things happen. This will result in a drop in YPC from the last two years but his production will increase. He will be asked to run some of the routes that Muhammad ran last year and he will do so gladly.

Staff Writer Chase Stuart said:

Smith missed week 17 last year and only missed two games in 2008 because of suspension. I don't think he's the injury risk some are making him out to be. And while I agree the touchdowns may be hard to come by on a run-oriented team, I still like his potential to gain a ton of receiving yards.

He led the league in receiving yards in 2005 and averaged 97.7 yards per game.
In 2006, he missed two games with injury and was saddled with the corpse of Chris Weinke for three games; in the other 11 games, he averaged 94.8 YPG.
His 2007 season was bad, but only because Vinny Testaverde and David Carr were the QBs. In the 6 games started by Delhomme or Moore, though, he averaged 89.7 YPG.
In 2008, he was suspended for the first two games but led the league with 101.5 YPG.

Last year was a bad year, but I think it's easy to blame it on Delhomme just losing it. He averaged 7.4 Y/A from 2005 to 2008, but fell off a cliff last year -- he had an anemic 4.3 Y/A average. But, in the four games with Moore, he averaged 94.5 Y/G.

So yes, in 2005 he was a monster, leading the league in all three major categories. He also averaged 97.7 yards per game. Since that year, he's played in 35 games with something resembling a decent NFL QB, and he's averaged 96.9 YPG in those games. That tells me his play hasn't fallen off at all.

If Matt Moore is a decent NFL QB and plays 16 games, and Steve Smith plays in 16 games, he's going to come close to 1600 yards. That's been his track record for five years now. I don't think Smith is a significant injury risk (at least compared to your average WR) but I do see a lot of "ifs" in that statement. And while I like Clausen, if he's playing in 2010, that could end up being terrible for Smith's fantasy value.


Steve Smith projections

RECRECYDRECTDRSHYDRSHTD
Anthony Borbely781170700
Message board consensus841227900