Will Steve Smith's Career Be Prolonged in Baltimore?

Smith is entering his age 35 year, and is now relegated to a second receiver role. What value does he have?

He was always made for this. Steve Smith's hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners, “ice up, son” attitude always seemed custom-fit to the AFC North and its old school, kick-in-the-teeth atmosphere. However, Smith went to much warmer and more welcoming climates when selected in the third round of the NFL Draft 13 years ago. Since then, Smith has proven to be a reliable – and at times elite – talent for his Carolina Panthers, despite pre-draft concerns about his diminutive 5’9”, 185-pound frame.

Yet, he never quite fit. Sure, Carolina made a few playoff runs with Smith on the team, but he was a slot receiver who transcended the mold, a number one wideout who didn’t have the right frame. With a young team finally on the up and up, though, “Smiff” turned 35 this May and was due a $7 million base salary for 2014. The career Panthers legend became very expendable very quickly. The Baltimore Ravens saw an opportunity to improve their own thin wide receiver corps and snapped him up, however, and now Smith will have a chance to show what he can do on northern ice as the second wideout behind Torrey Smith.

While it may seem foregone that a 35-year-old receiver is in the twilight of his career, could there still be value for the Ravens’ new number two? What does he bring to the table, and what can new Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak do to maximize Smith’s talent at this point?

Bird of Prey

Before we start speculating about what Smith can still be, let’s first look at what he has been in order to establish a baseline of production and ability. We’ll do this by using our comprehensive production metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures how much a player’s contribution betters his team’s chances of scoring on any given drive. Specifically, in Smith’s case, we will look at Reception NEP (NEP gained or lost solely on plays resulting in receptions by the player), and Target NEP (NEP gained or lost on any play in which the player was targeted by a pass).

The table below shows Smith’s production in our NEP categories over the course of his career prior to age 30, omitting only his 20-target rookie season and his injury-shortened, nine-target 2004 campaign. I have also included the ranks of his numbers among all wide receivers in that year.

YearAgeReception NEPRankTarget NEP RankReception NEP per Target
20022370.5331st27.19 35th0.73
20032484.9618th34.56 20th0.61
200526143.331st102.69 1st0.96
20062798.97 12th44.30 11th0.71
20072880.4024th26.14 35th0.55
200829117.874th72.95 2nd0.91

Smith’s career arc through his prime is shockingly elite for a small wide receiver. His Reception NEP numbers display a remarkable consistency despite fairly subpar quarterback play throughout most of his time in the league. The ranks swing a bit here and there, but it’s worth noting that, from age 24 to 29, he never had a season below 80.00 Reception NEP, which is very productive for a receiver. Four of these six seasons also saw a Reception NEP per target of more than 0.70 (two over 0.90). This metric is a measure of receiving efficiency, how much value the player adds on each opportunity they get.

These top five finishes in almost every metric in 2005 and 2008 belie a potential problem in how to look at Smith’s career, though. We can say that he had two seasons before age 30 of 0.90 Reception NEP per target, but we also must note that he had two seasons below 0.65, which is about an average target efficiency for a receiver. In addition, despite his reputation for being a sure-handed and reliable receiving weapon, Smith finished outside the top 30 in Target NEP twice in the prime of his career.

Normally we might chalk that up to bad quarterback play or “a down year”, but this is a problem that crops up as we look at Smith’s numbers in his age 30 season and beyond. There’s a shocking turn in production that is foreshadowed by his efficiency. The table below shows these seasons, from age 30 to age 34.

YearAgeRec NEPRankTarget NEP RankRec NEP per Target
20093089.4218th14.00 60th0.70
20103142.6670th-14.21 179th0.44
201132108.757th50.12 10th0.84
20123390.6418th31.98 35th0.66
20133474.5633rd23.53 41st0.68

Now, we know that Smith has always been a high-volume player; he’s only had two seasons under 100 targets, not counting his rookie 2001 or injured 2004, and those other two seasons saw him garner 97 and 98 targets. However, a player supposedly of such an elite caliber should be converting targets into production much more handily than 40 ranks of difference between Reception NEP and Target NEP (or even more than 100 in 2010).

At this point, it’s very clear that Smith is no longer the kind of player who can put together top five or – despite his age 32 resurgence – top 10 seasons, and his per target efficiency is also settling around our average receiver’s; in 2012 and 2013, his Reception NEP per target numbers were 0.66 and 0.68 respectively. Smith himself has said he doesn’t mind being “a complementary dude”, but as a fairly volume-dependent producer at this point of his career, will he still have much value playing second fiddle?

Learn To Fly

“Smiff”, a former number one wideout, will now fit into Gary Kubiak’s offense in Baltimore as a secondary receiver; let’s take in all those moving parts for a second. To get a historical picture of how this offensive scheme has utilized its second receivers, I charted out the NEP metrics of the second-highest Houston Texans wide receiver in Reception NEP every year that Kubiak was the head coach (2006-2013). Their numbers are shown in the table below.

YearRecRec NEPTargetsTarget NEP Rec NEP per Target
20065741.017819.70 0.53
2007*6570.8810612.82 0.67
20086076.799542.66 0.81
20095350.817028.28 0.73
2010*5151.288015.65 0.64
2011*3940.275920.04 0.68
20124145.156814.96 0.66
20135258.059115.94 0.64

In spite of the fame of Kubiak’s offense featuring two tight ends in the passing game, the second receiver is actually not too poor of a position, either. Interestingly, too, not much of this success can be chalked up to a second receiver stepping into the oft-injured Andre Johnson's number one role. The seasons where Johnson missed at least one game are marked with an asterisk, and only 2007 was a particularly prolific season for the second option in the wake of his injury.

The fit of Smith’s mid 0.60s Reception NEP per target efficiency with Kubiak’s number two seems pretty on point, but the former Panther will likely see his volume almost cut in half (Smith’s average targets over the past five years: 124; Texans’ number two receiver: 74). Fortunately, the Texans’ number two role has tended to have slightly worse Target NEP numbers than Smith over the past five years of his career, indicating that his natural ability, coupled with a more talented passer in Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, could lead him to be valuable even on fewer opportunities.

Smith’s career has seen him reach some extremely high highs considering expectations and his build, but this season’s move to Baltimore will allow him to function more in his suited role of a secondary option. He no longer has the deep speed to blow the top off of defenses and put together a top five wide receiver season, but working alongside Torrey Smith, he should still be a respectably useful weapon for a rejuvenated Ravens passing attack. Gary Kubiak knows how to maximize the pieces around him, and I do think Smiff has a good chance to increase his efficiency in 2014 even as his natural ability flies off into the sunset.