Tre'Quan Smith Could Thrive in the New Orleans Saints' Passing Game
Rookie wide receivers don't usually make an immediate impact in fantasy football. We don't see breakouts like JuJu Smith-Schuster's every year. Even the best wide receivers can take time to adjust to the NFL level (Antonio Brown had just 167 yards in his rookie season).
In other words, the circumstances have to be just right for a rookie wideout to make an impact in their first year, especially for fantasy football. But the stars may have aligned when the New Orleans Saints drafted Tre'Quan Smith with the 91st overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft.
Out of UCF, Smith was the ninth wide receiver taken, but he may have the highest year-one upside of any receiver in this class. What makes him so intriguing?
The Brees Effect
Smith has one huge advantage over the other receivers in this year's draft: he gets to catch passes from Drew Brees.
For years, Brees has been one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL and fantasy football, and has perennially catapulted his pass-catchers to the top of fantasy leaderboards. Just two years ago, two Saints receivers finished in the top-10 in fantasy points. In fact, one of those two receivers was then-rookie Michael Thomas. And the young Tre'Quan Smith could be next in line.
While Brees has dominated in all aspects of the quarterback position over the years, his deep ball is quite possibly the best there is. Per Playerprofiler.com, Brees had the highest deep-ball completion percentage in both 2016 and 2017. This is a perfect match for Smith, who was one of college football's premier deep-ball threats in 2017. Only one wide receiver in college football had more receptions and a higher yards per reception than Smith last year -- and that's Biletnikoff Award winner (and second-round draft pick) James Washington.
This past season was a surprisingly quiet one for Brees. He attempted his fewest passes (536) since 2009 while also posting his lowest passing yards and touchdowns since joining the Saints in 2006. For reference, Brees has averaged nearly 624 pass attempts per season with New Orleans.
Brees' relatively low marks can partially be attributed to the team's defense, which took a big step up last year, but also to the extreme efficiency of the offense -- especially one Alvin Kamara. Brees' volume stats should regress closer to their mean in 2018, especially when we view his 2017 season within the context of Kamara's incredible season out of the backfield.
Kamara's 2017 season yielded the highest Total Net Expected Points (NEP), the number of points a player adds to their team's expected points total in real games, since Ladainian Tomlinson's historic 2006 season. Incredibly, Kamara accomplished this on just 202 touches, literally half the touches Tomlinson had in his 2006 season. We've never seen such efficient running back play and, unfortunately for Kamara, we have to expect him to regress in efficiency this season.
But Kamara's misfortune could mean big things for Tre-Quan Smith.
An Aging Depth Chart
Michael Thomas is an excellent wide receiver -- we know this. But, after him, who exactly do the Saints have? Brees frequently targets his running backs (he threw 172 passes to Kamara and Mark Ingram in 2017), but then things really drop off.
Ted Ginn Jr. had arguably the best season of his career in 2017, but will be 33 going into the 2018 season. Cameron Meredith had a fantastic 2016 with the Chicago Bears, but is coming off a torn ACL and MCL suffered last preseason. Whether or not the Bears made a misstep in tendering Meredith at the original round level remains to be seen, but it could indicate that the team had doubts about his recovery (especially considering they signed Allen Robinson -- also recovering from an ACL tear -- the very next day).
The Saints' big free agent signing at the tight end position this year was Benjamin Watson. While Watson has previously had success with the Saints, he's going on 38 years old.
All this to say that the Saints' pass-catching corps is thin. Smith would only have to surpass two veterans in the twilight of their careers and a recovering Cam Meredith to stake a claim on a significant share of Brees' pass attempts.
Smith the Prospect
We've established that he has a relatively clear path to a significant number of high-quality passing targets, but what about Tre'Quan Smith as a prospect? There's a lot to like there as well.
As previously mentioned, Smith is one of the top deep threat prospects in this year's class. His 4.49 40-yard dash time is respectable (a 70th-percentile score), but it's especially impressive given his 6'2", 210-pound frame. At that size, Smith's time earned him a speed score in the 82nd percentile.
He coupled that size-speed combo with production at the college level. Smith posted a 32.17% market share of UCF's receiving yardage in his age-19 season, good for a Breakout Age in the 86th percentile. Multiple studies have shown Breakout Age to be among the best predictors of NFL success, which bodes well for Smith's future.
While his target and yardage market share numbers dipped in his final season at UCF, his efficiency numbers spiked in his only season with a quarterback completing over 60% of his passes. Smith played a big part in UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton's sophomore leap. Per PFF Draft, Smith led all draft-eligible receivers in passer rating when targeted. In other words, Smith did a lot to help his quarterbacks look good.
Lastly, he has yet another means of getting on the field: blocking. The Saints ran him through multiple blocking drills in their visit with Smith, and one scout noted that Smith may be the best blocker in the wide receiver class. It may not yield fantasy points, but superior blocking skills should lead to playing time for the young receiver.
Smith could be this year's rookie breakout from the wide receiver spot. His circumstances bear similarities to Smith-Schuster's 2017 season (prolific quarterback, relatively open depth chart, ability to block) and to teammate Michael Thomas' the year before. His size, speed and early Breakout Age are all promising signs of NFL success, which should translate to relevance in fantasy football.