Where Will Steve Smith's Targets Go in the Baltimore Ravens' New-Look Offense?
The conservation of mass states that in a closed system, the mass in that system must stay constant over time. It can neither be created nor destroyed. In football, you can pretty much say the exact same thing about targets.
For any given offensive scheme, targets will also remain constant for the most part. If one player begins receiving more targets, another player must begin receiving fewer of them, and vice-versa.
So with reports that Steve Smith may see fewer snaps this season, the departure of veteran receiver Torrey Smith to the San Francisco 49ers, and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to the Baltimore coaching staff, the question on everyone's mind is how the playing time and target distribution will be divvied up in the revamped Baltimore Ravens offense for 2015.
A Reduced Role for Steve Smith
If you followed Steve Smith's production last season, the call by the coaching staff for a reduction in his snaps and workload to keep him fresh throughout the year shouldn't come as a surprise.
While the scorned and motivated Smith put up another 1,000-yard season to his resume alongside a robust 84.65 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP), his performances in the first- and second-half of the season were night and day from one another. Smith looked like a version of his younger self during the first month and a half of 2014, peaking with his 7-reception, 139-yard, 2-touchdown game against his former team in Week 4. But Smith soon found himself burning out once the calendar hit midseason.
Despite a healthy stream of targets throughout the year, while Smith produced above-average numbers in the receiving yards department (dotted yellow line) in five out of the first six weeks of the year, over the final 10 games of the year he only managed to surpass his season averages in this category three more times. Beyond this, four out of Smith's six touchdowns on the season also came during the first six weeks of 2014.
So to say that Smith slowed down as the season wore on is an understatement.
And as he enters his 15th season in the league at the age of 36 -- unless the Ravens managed to install the Fountain of Youth at their training facility this offseason -- Smith's stamina won't be getting any better.
From the above analysis, it becomes obvious why the Ravens came to the conclusion that they needed to scale back Smith's workload if they wanted to have the same caliber player in Week 17 that they had in Week 1.
But cutting back Smith's playing time will also leave a large void in the Ravens' offense. Last season, despite an inefficient second half of the year, Smith was still on the receiving end of 133 total targets. And as we'll soon see, the targets that will no longer be coming Steve Smith's way won't just disappear: they'll need to be soaked up by other playmakers on the roster. So the question remains, who will step in to fill the snaps, targets, and production opened up by Smith's reduced playing time?
The New Offense
In order to predict how the targets will be redistributed in Baltimore following a reduction in playing time for Steve Smith, Sr. this season, we must first understand the new system that will now be employed there.
Following the departure of last season's offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, to Denver, many are expecting new Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman to bring with him the same wide-open aerial attack he utilized the past two years in Chicago. Trestman's schemes tend to utilize multiple receiver and tight end sets to spread the defense and generate one-on-one mismatches for the quarterback to then exploit.
Indeed, nearly half of all pass attempts thrown by Jay Cutler and Jimmy Clausen last season came with three wideouts on the field. And while a little over 50% of Trestman's pass plays came in single tight end sets, another one-fifth of these plays were called in formations with two or more tight ends.
But while these pass catchers will likely get their fair share of playing time this season, the outlook for their targets won't be nearly as even. In this regard, a closer look at the target distribution for Trestman's receivers in Chicago last year actually reveals an interesting finding.
Despite the use of multiple receiver and multiple tight end sets, many of Trestman's schemes seemed to focus on getting the ball into the hands of the primary receiver, running back, or tight end on the team.
Indeed, a remarkable 83.7% of the Bears 608 pass attempts last season went to either the top two receivers on the roster in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, the workhorse back in Matt Forte, or the lead tight end in Martellus Bennett.
From this we can see that while the skill position players in Baltimore will see plenty of time on the field in Trestman's offense, those that can work their way to the top of the depth chart will reap the greatest rewards.
Playing to Joe Flacco's Strengths
To determine which players will most likely benefit from the Ravens' new offense and Smith's scaled back role in it, we must also understand quarterback Joe Flacco's preferences in terms of where on the field he likes to throw to.
Flacco has made a career and won a Super Bowl picking defenses apart with his accuracy in the short game. In 2014, Flacco connected on 70.5% of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
It's no wonder therefore that players with sharp route running skills, and the size, strength, and hands to win in this part of the field, most notably Anquan Boldin, have thrived with Flacco under center.
But beyond this distance, Flacco's attempts and accuracy fall of dramatically.
Last season, a little over 29% of Flacco's pass attempts went further than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. And a look at his accuracy in this range reveals a potential reason for why he shied away from these types of throws. Flacco connected on just 41.7% of his passes thrown in this part of the field, including an abysmal two-for-eleven on throws traveling 41 or more yards through the air.
Taken all together, when looking for the receiver skills that best complement Flacco's talents, it becomes obvious that strength, size, and footwork -- skills that allow receivers to beat defenders in the short game -- take priority above raw speed. This may also partly explain why the Ravens chose to sign the elder Steve Smith last season, while allowing the younger Torrey Smith to walk in free agency this season.
All this data suggests that we can expect Trestman to spread the field with multiple wideout sets, with the majority of Flacco's targets being funneled toward the team's primary option at receiver, running back, and tight end (likely in that order). Based on historical preferences, Flacco will also likely rely on his playmakers that can win on the field within the first 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
So which players now on the Ravens' roster best fit these roles?
The Wide Receivers
With Steve Smith taking a step back in Trestman's offense for the 2015 season and last year's number two wideout, Torrey Smith, now in San Francisco, the most obvious beneficiary from the circumstances described above will be whoever can lay claim to the Raven's number one wide receiver role.
I've written extensively about Perriman's skill set and his fit with the offense. If we break down Perriman's full set of abilities, it becomes apparent that Breshad has the ideal skill set that both Trestman and Flacco look for in a number one wideout.
Standing at 6' 2", 212 pounds, and with a 4.24 40-yard dash time, Breshad has a combination of size and speed that is on par with Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, two receivers that thrived in Trestman's offense in Chicago. And as I've profiled previously -- similar to Bengals Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green -- Perriman has the strength, hands, body control, and route-running capabilities that allow him to win in the short game, Flacco's preferred area of attack.
And while veterans Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown will certainly have their roles in this offense, neither of them have the combination of size and skill to challenge Perriman for the lead receiver role on the Ravens. Therefore, if Perriman can quickly adjust to the speed of the NFL game -- and as a likely centerpiece to Marc Trestman's offense -- Breshad may just find himself leading the race for offensive rookie of the year honors in 2015.
The Tight Ends
Rookie tight end Maxx Williams finds himself in an interesting spot next year. With Dennis Pitta's season in doubt, and second-year vet Crockett Gillmore a better blocker than receiver, Williams may find himself as the lead candidate to soak up the targets that will go the tight end's way this season.
Our own Tyler Buecher has recently documented the pass catching prowess Williams displayed in college, noting that his 36 receptions, 569 yards, and 8 touchdowns accounted for 33% of Minnesota's passing offense last season.
While I myself have documented the difficulties rookie tight ends have historically had in putting up decent production in their first season in the NFL, Williams finds himself in a near-ideal position to be one of the few rookie tight ends capable of making a big impact in his first year in the league.
The Running Backs
Marc Trestman offense has heavily targeted the lead running back position, with Forte totaling 175 receptions on 223 targets the past two seasons. This, combined with the fact that Flacco sported a 72.3% completion rate on passes traveling behind the line of scrimmage, bodes incredibly well for current Ravens lead back Justin Forsett.
Forsett has already displayed his proficiency in the passing game last season, where he caught 44 of his 59 targets for a 8.00 Reception NEP. With Trestman's offense capable of maximizing Forsett's skills in this facet of the game, the emerging stud back in Baltimore may have just found himself in the perfect spot to build off his breakout 2014 season.
In total, it's clear that Breshad Perriman finds himself with the perfect set of skills and team situation to not only seize the lead wideout role in what projects to be a very pass-happy Ravens offense, but could also make a run for the offensive rookie of the year award.
In terms of the highly coveted number two wideout role on this offense, with the presence and talent level of Steve Smith -- even in the latter years of his career, and on a pitch-count this season -- it's difficult to imagine either Marlon Brown or Kamar Aiken claiming this highly coveted slot all to themselves, and I expect a receiver-by-committee situation at this position.
Instead, the beneficiaries in the passing games due to the reduced role for Smith and the arrival of Marc Trestman will likely be Justin Forsett and Maxx Williams, the projected lead back and tight end, respectively, for this team.
Trestman has had success finding ways to get his top weapons in the passing game open wherever he's coached. This all bodes well for the productivity of the skill position players on Baltimore's roster that can climb their way to the top of the depth charts. And if everything goes according to plan, their top two picks in this year's draft may just enter the league with a very loud bang.