Devin Smith got his first look on Sunday. Out of necessity, he saw big playing time as Eric Decker and Chris Owusu missed the game. Smith was targeted 9 times but only recorded 3 catches for 39 yards. I decided to take a look at those targets in addition to the snaps he played.
In the hi-tech GGN chart below (not to be confused with hi-tech GGN graphics), I give an outline of how far from the line of scrimmage Smith's targets came and whether they were inside or outside the numbers.
|40-50 yards||0 for 1|
|30-40 yards||0 for 1|
|20-30 yards||0 for 2; INT||0 for 1|
|10-20 yards||0 for 1||3 for 3 39 yards|
The success on the 10 to 20 yard patterns is of particular note because of how the Eagles covered him. Smith had a reputation in college for being mainly a deep threat, and their corners true to form spent most of the game providing him with a big cushion to take away the deep stuff. That left intermediate patterns there.
On two of the three completions, you can see the Eagles corner giving such a cushion that he is not even guarding the sticks. He is conceding a first down to avoid getting beaten over the top.
If injuries again force Smith to continue to play big snaps, it stands to reason many future opponents will cover him in the same way. Part of it is the opponents are going to take away what Smith does best and force him to show he can hurt them on other parts of the field. There is more to it than this, however. When Smith and Brandon Marshall are the primary outside receivers, the opponent is going to key on Marshall. The bulk of the resources will be sent his way. The other team will try to be aggressive at the line because there will be help. This will leave Smith alone on the other side. Defenses are going to be apt to give Smith a cushion to prevent him getting deep. Short stuff and even some intermediate stuff will be there as the defense is likely to want to live another day.
Smith is still raw as a receiver. He did not run a full route tree in college, and he lost virtually his entire rookie training camp. Still, the Jets might look to get the ball to him on basic routes like hitches and throw some screens to see what he can do. Those will be available. While Smith became a prospect based on his deep ball skills rather than explosive ability with the ball in his hands, it might make sense for the Jets to see how much Smith's speed can give them in this area.
This is an offense where the quarterback is not capable of carrying the load. The skill players need to do a lot of work. If Smith can be effective on basic passes to any extent by running after the catch, it will help. The Jets do not have so much cooking otherwise on offense to prevent them from at least trying to incorporate these things into the offense. The defense is giving them a head start based on the way Smith is covered. With some degree of success, defenses will eventually have to adjust and play Smith with less cushion. This will make it easier for him to get open deep.
Now with this said, Smith is still raw and not necessarily ready to contribute as a deep threat if the coverage gets more aggressive. I look at the interception Ryan Fitzpatrick threw while targeting Smith.
This is my read on the play. Smith gives a stutter step at the line, but he needs to do more. He has to do something to sell the idea he's going inside on a slant, maybe a hard jab with his inside foot, and then go outside. Smith needs to get Eric Rowe leaning to the inside and then throw him off balance by going outside. While Rowe composes himself, Smith could be in stride creating separation. That isn't what happens.
Because Smith doesn't sell his route, he gets trapped between Rowe and the sideline. There is no separation.
There is a miniscule window. To complete this pass, Fitzpatrick has to drop the ball in over Rowe, within Smith's catch radius and in bounds.
With a great quarterback, you have a chance to hit that. Great quarterbacks elevate their team in a way players at no other position can. This play is a good example why. With a good quarterback, that is probably incomplete. With a bad quarterback or oh, let's say Fitzpatrick type, it's an interception. When the receiver loses the way Smith did, the one thing a quarterback can unequivocally not do is underthrow his pass. The ball has to either be caught by the receiver or overthrown. This play reminds me a bit of the famous Sherman vs. Mediocre Receiver Crabtree play. The poor job the receiver does leaves a low probability of success, and a poor throw by the quarterback turns it into a disaster.
Again, I don't really blame Smith. He is a rookie whose game needs work, and he missed training camp. I don't expect him to be a big-time player right now. To me, though, this is the type of play that shows the difference between college and the pros. In college, you can outrun guys. In the NFL, everybody is fast. It's tough to just run past somebody.
The best case scenario would be for the main receivers to get healthy and Smith to develop on the practice field, perhaps becoming a contributor late in the season. That might not be possible right now. To the extent the Jets can get production out of Smith while making him run simple routes, it should be a win. Counterintuitive though it might be, focusing on getting him the ball short when the defense gives him those routes might be the way to go. This is a ball control offense built upon moving the chains and helping the defense win the field position battle anyway.