Where Have You Gone, Steve Smith?

What happened to Steve Smith's 2013 season?

The post-Week 13 fantasy football Twittersphere was somewhat of a year-in-review. All over the the place, my timeline was cluttered with folks stating who was right and where they went wrong. It also had complaints about the Knicks, but that's for another article.

It was somewhat refreshing to see fantasy football writers be so contrite, open and honest about their misses this year. The fantasy football community gets a lot of flack for sweeping aside their misses and pumping up their hits. I can say, openly and honestly, that this is untrue. I have seen plenty of writers own up to their mistakes and misses this year.

In the spirit of following suit, I'll own up to mine: I loved Steve Smith's value this year. I stand by my logic, but I was wildly wrong. The Panthers are good, and better than most probably expected. Quarterback Cam Newton is playing exceptionally well, not only running the ball (which we expected) but throwing it too - Cam ranks seventh in net expected points per pass amongst passers with at least 300 throws.

If we knew how good Cam was going to be throwing the ball, I bet I would've liked Smith even more this preseason. But Smith is barely top 50 in fantasy points scored at wide receiver in standard leagues (40th currently). So, the question remains: what the heck happened?

No Explosion

Part of the reason I liked Smith coming into the year was based on the fact that he had pretty much the same numbers in 2011 as he did in 2012. After the 2011, season, however, he was a fourth-rounder in fantasy, and after the 2012 season, he was somewhere around the seventh round in most leagues.

In 2011, Smith averaged 17.6 yards per reception, the second-highest number of his career. And in 2012, Smith had 16.1 yards per reception, tied for the third-highest total on his career. He also had similar receptions per game: 4.9 in 2011 and 4.6 in 2012. The starkest difference was in Smith's touchdown numbers, which dropped from seven in 2011 to four in 2012. As touchdown tends to be a pretty unpredictable metric, relying on that number being high or low was, in my opinion, less important than relying on a player to have chances to score.

The problem with Smith has not necessarily been the touchdowns this year, either. Smith has three on the season with four games to go, and probably will meet or exceed his total from last year when all is said and done. A huge problem, really, has been Smith's lack of explosiveness on the field. While Smith's receptions per game has remained remarkably consistent, down only .1 receptions per game from last year, Smith has been unable to gain separation - he sits at 11.7 yards per reception, which would be the second-lowest average of his career.

Smith, while being big-play capable, is also big-play reliant. The big plays simply haven't been there for him in 2013.

No Efficiency

Though Smith's receptions have remained pretty close to last year, he's done relatively little with them. This is not just reflected in his yards per reception total, but also in his Reception NEP per Target - essentially measuring how efficient a player is at adding points for his team when catching the ball. Of all players who have caught 20 or more passes, Smith ranks 64th in the metric. Smith ranked 30th in this same category in 2011.

This stark lack of efficiency might be indicative of a couple of things: it could be that Smith is aging, that it's a simple regression to the mean (a big play-reliant player simply got lucky when he broke big plays consistently or, in the alternative, is getting unlucky by not breaking big plays), or perhaps a third thing I'll talk about in a bit. Whatever the root cause is, the result is that fantasy players counting on Smith reaching his high ceiling have realized the hard way that there's also a floor of plunging depths. The fact is, whatever targets Smith is getting, he's had trouble doing a ton with them, something he was pretty good at in his 2011 campaign.

More New Friends

Colloquially, a lot of the hate on Smith came from the fact that he was, for a while, the lone passing target and defenses could key in on him. While it's true that he was the most used wide receiver on the Panthers in both 2011 and 2012 by far, those were much more productive fantasy years than in 2013 when Smith had a ton of buddies along side of him.

In 2011, Smith had 129 targets. The next best receiver on Carolina in terms of targets was Legedu Naanee at 44. No other wide receiver had more than 40 targets.

Similarly, in 2012, Smith had 138 targets, and the next most targets amongst Carolina wide receivers went to Brandon LaFell had 76 targets, and Louis Murphy had 61 targets.

In short, Smith had been receiving nearly double the number of looks as any of his compatriots. This year, however, paints a different picture. Smith still leads Carolina wide receivers in targets, but in 12 games, Smith has received 95 looks. His next closest receiver, unlike other years, Brandon LaFell, has 70 targets, and Ted Ginn has 53 targets. Essentially, LaFell has nearly the same number of targets with four weeks to go in the season as he had all of 2012, and Ginn has nearly as many as Louis Murphy had all of last year.

It seems that not only is Smith unable to do much with the targets he receives, but the ball is being spread around quite a bit more in Carolina than it had been the last two years. It's clear that the Carolina coaching staff, and perhaps Cam Newton, are looking to move the ball elsewhere, either taking advantage of teams overplaying Smith and leaving weak defenders on the other Carolina receivers, or perhaps it's simply that the other two wide receivers occupying the field are just better.

Both Ginn and LaFell are gaining a higher efficiency scores than Smith. Additionally, tight end Greg Olsen is also scoring a higher Reception NEP per Target than Smith. Contrast this with 2011 - Smith scored nearly double the Reception NEP per Target as Legedu Naanee, the only other wide receiver with more than 70 targets.

The End of Days?

In sum, it appears a lot of things are simply working against Smith to destroy his value this year. He's not using his targets well at all, operating at a much less efficient rate than fantasy owners might have expected. But he also has more (and better) competition for Newton's passes. Additionally, at 34 years old, for a guy so reliant on big plays, this may be the end of the road for Smith. I am not sure it really comes back. That said, we've written off Smith before - so nothing should surprise us.