Can Kamar Aiken Replace Steve Smith's Production in Baltimore?
In a season where the Baltimore Ravens have been playing their way to the front of the line for the 2016 NFL Draft, there was a lone bright spot on their offense.
Despite playing with fractures in his back, Steve Smith was having another one of his Pro Bowl-worthy seasons, amassing 41 receptions for 588 yards and 3 touchdowns in just six games going into the Ravens' Week 8 contest with San Diego.
Against the Chargers, Smith hauled in a catch to pass Cris Carter for 10th all time in career receiving yards, and it seemed as if nothing would be able to stop the ageless wonder in Baltimore.
And then tragedy struck.
In the third quarter of that same game, Smith went down to a tackle around his ankles on a 17-yard catch and run and, unable to stand on his own power, motioned for help from the sidelines. And just like that, the 15-year veteran's season was over because of a ruptured Achilles.
In the aftermath of the injury, the attention has quickly turned to Kamar Aiken with Baltimore looking to the second-year receiver to fill the void in the receiving game.
Big Shoes to Fill
Despite missing Week 5 with back fractures and leaving Week 8 early with his season-ending Achilles injury, Smith has still accounted for 23% of the the Ravens' 321 targets, 31% of the team's receiving yards, and 30% of Baltimore's receiving touchdowns.
When we match Smith and Aiken head-to-head, it's clear that there's no comparison. Even in Smith's 36 year-old season, he has stood head and shoulders above Aiken on the field.
On a per-game basis Aiken has averaged less than half the numbers that Smith has put up, hauling in 3.1 of 5.5 targets per game for 41.6 receiving yards and 0.25 touchdowns per game compared to Smith and his 6.6 receptions on 10.5 targets per game for 95.7 yards and 0.43 targets.
That's a pretty wide gap that Aiken is going to be asked to bridge. So can he do it?
Aiken for Some Help in the Passing Game
While Aiken is by no stretch of the imagination a second coming of Smith, a deeper look at the numbers suggests Aiken may be able to approximate Smith's production in the passing game with an increased workload.
In terms of receiving efficiency Aiken, surprisingly, is right there with Smith, averaging 0.72 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target compared to Smith's 0.78 mark.
For those unfamiliar, NEP is our in-house metric that measures a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. A positive NEP means a player improved his team's scoring opportunity, and as you might expect, a negative score means the opposite.
So on a per-target basis, AIken has actually helped his team's chances of scoring as much as Smith (albeit on a far lower volume than Smith). And if Aiken can improve on his subpar 56.8% catch rate, he has a chance to approach Smith's level of efficiency on the season.
All this should give Baltimore some hope that Aiken can help the Ravens move the ball and put points on the board in the passing game in Smith's absence. At the same time, however, while Aiken should see more targets, he, of course, will also begin to see the opposition's top cover man on most nights as well.
With all this being said, there are some hints that Aiken can handle the increased responsibility. In Week 5 without Smith, Aiken was able to grab 4 receptions for 78 yards, and in Week 8 with Smith out for most of the second-half, Aiken once again stepped up to reel in all 6 of his targets for 62 yards in a win over the Chargers.
Outlook for Aiken
There's no replacing a future Hall of Famer like Smith. Even in his 15th season in the league, Smith was operating at an elite level for the Ravens as far and away their best option in the passing game.
However, while Aiken won't suddenly become a Pro Bowl-caliber player, if he can take on this increased workload and continue to maintain the same level of efficiency he's had so far this year, he may be able to do just enough to keep the Ravens passing game viable for the rest of this season.