As is well-known by now, dynasty owners are frequently afflicted with rookie fever. Every year, we fall in love with a juicy new rookie class, often transferring over previously-held enthusiasm for the rookies from the year before. With wide receivers in particular, this can be dangerous given the rarity of first-year breakouts. Though D.J. Moore and Christian Kirk are rightfully receiving plenty of love right now, the rest of the 2018 WR class is flying under the radar at the moment.
When analyzing second-year breakout candidates, three main factors should be weighed: the strength of the player as a prospect, what the player did with their opportunity in their rookie year, and the potential for the situation around the player to change for the better. All three point to massive progress for Tre’Quan Smith this year, an outcome not currently baked into his price.
Smith has been underrated as a prospect going all the way back to last year. He lead UCF in receiving yards his freshman, sophomore, and junior years, achieving a 68th percentile Dominator and a very early breakout age of 19 according to Player Profiler. Though the counting stats weren’t particularly impressive until his final year, Tre’Quan was the unquestioned #1 receiver the moment he stepped on campus, posting more receiving yards his freshman year than the next two players on the team combined.
We can also look to the efficiency of his college quarterback for further insight into Tre’Quan’s impact. McKenzie Milton’s completion percentage dropped from 67.1% to 59.1% after Tre’Quan left. Milton’s passing yardage also dropped from 4,037 to 2,663, and his touchdown passes from 37 to 25 (in 3 less games). Tre’Quan’s importance to the UCF passing game could not be overstated.
Tre’Quan also possesses above-average physical tools. His time of 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash puts him in the 71st percentile, and is made even more impressive when considering his 6 foot 2 inch, 210-pound frame. The only holes in this aspect of his profile are his slower times in the 3-cone and shuttle. This means he athletically profiles somewhat similarly to D.K. Metcalf, though less extreme on both ends.
Rookie Year in Review
Smith’s rookie year didn’t scream breakout, but he flashed just enough to foster confidence going forward. 28 receptions for 428 yards and 5 touchdowns is respectable enough for a rookie, but it’s more interesting when considering that 268 of those yards and 3 of those touchdowns came in just 2 games. Admittedly, they came against the battered secondaries of the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, but they showed Tre’Quan is capable of producing efficiently when called upon.
Digging in to some efficiency stats courtesy of Player Profiler, Tre’Quan posted 15.2 yards per reception, a mark good for top 20 in the league. Even more impressively, Tre’Quan was 8th in the league in fantasy points per target, and supplied the 3rd-highest QB rating when targeted of all receivers.
Small sample size disclaimers should be applied here, but his rookie year suggests Tre’Quan can operate as a highly efficient deep threat. Based on his usage as a rookie last year, he also seems to have a hold on the #2 wide receiver job. After the first month of the season in 2018, Tre’Quan’s snap percentage dipped below 60% only once, and it eclipsed 70% five times. Though Ted Ginn was injured for much of the year and actually averaged more targets per game, the Saints showed they were willing to trust Tre’Quan with the type of high-leverage targets Ginn has always received. Tre’Quan delivered on that trust, reeling in over 90% of his catchable targets, a mark good for 8th in the league last year.
It’s fair to characterize Smith during his rookie year as having performed nearly as capably as Ginn did in what was by far his most efficient year (2017). To put it another way, Ginn didn’t sniff Tre’Quan’s rookie efficiency until his 2nd year in the league, when he went 56/790/2 while averaging 8.5 yards per target in 2008, compared to Tre’Quan’s 9.7 yards per target last year. Ginn’s career year in 2017 is the only year he’s eclipsed that number.
Overall, Tre’Quan’s relative efficiency and two blow-up games suggest his development is moving along nicely. Just one question remains: how might he see an uptick in target volume?
Situation in 2019
To get to the heart of the above question, we must, for a moment, look slightly beneath the surface-level and examine the factors that inform passing volume at the team level.
While most teams in the league increased their pass attempts from 2017 to 2018, the Saints actually took a slight step back, going from 536 to 519, or about 1 less attempt per game. The Saints ranked 20th in the league in pass/run ratio in 2017, and fell to 26th in the league in 2018. As you can see, in the last two years, and especially last year, the Saints have been one of the more run-heavy teams in the league.
Though this isn’t how one typically thinks of the Saints, it makes sense when considering their personnel: they ranked near league average in points allowed (though their defense played better than that for much of the year), and had a run-blocking unit that ranked second in the league in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards, meaning the offensive line contributed heavily to the success of the run game.
Both of these factors have a chance to change in 2019, leading to more negative game scripts and, therefore, more pass attempts for the Saints. For one, the NFC South could be even more of a laser show this year than it has been in previous years. A new coaching staff for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers led by Bruce Arians and the return of Dirk Koetter to his post of offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons could both encourage higher-scoring affairs. The Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers both have exciting young receivers we could also see breakouts from, and Atlanta has invested in their offensive line this offseason, ideally leading to more time in the pocket for Matt Ryan. These factors could all combine to lead to more game scripts that necessitate a pass-heavy approach.
As for the offensive line, Max Unger has retired, and the Saints must now rely on rookie center Erik McCoy to hold down the interior, which affects the run game disproportionately. The Saints still have their two star tackles in Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk, so while the edge rush may still be held off, the interior running game could suffer. A single weak link or injury on an offensive line often has a domino effect, particularly if it necessitates players moving down the line and out of their best position. There are lots of possible outcomes here that could lead to a less run-heavy focus for the Saints in 2019 as compared to years past.
Let’s return to the comparison of Ginn’s 2017 with Tre’Quan’s 2018. While Ginn saw 70 targets in 2017, those were more-or-less split between the two of them in 2018, with Tre’Quan seeing 44 and Ginn seeing 30. Given Tre’Quan’s rookie production, glowing reviews in training camp, and Ginn turning 34 this offseason, it’s fair to expect Tre’Quan to continue to cut in to Ginn’s target share. Being conservative, if Tre’Quan jumps from his 11% target share last year to the 14% that Ginn saw in 2017, along with there being a bump in team pass attempts to be closer to what would have ranked them 16th in the league last year, he’ll see about 78 targets this year, putting him around 750 yards using his rookie-year efficiency.
Of course, Tre’Quan could marginalize Ginn even more, the Saints could be forced to pass even more than the league average, and Tre’Quan could be even more efficient, but 78/750 seems like a reasonable base expectation. As for the upside, only 70.5% of Tre’Quan’s targets last year were considered catchable, putting him outside the top 80 in the league. For comparison, 86% of Ginn’s targets in 2017 were catchable, a rate that was top 10 in the league. Unless you don’t believe Drew Brees is still one of the most prolifically accurate QBs in the league, it’s reasonable to expect Tre’Quan to see many more catchable targets this year than he did last year. If Brees does his part, Tre’Quan’s production and dynasty value could skyrocket this year.
Fantasy Football Calculator has Tre’Quan going at an ADP of 211 in startups, behind receivers like Tyrell Williams, Quincy Enunwa, and Jamison Crowder. Trade calculators seem to value him at around a 2020 2nd-round pick. Given everything discussed so far, he could be fetching a 1st by season’s end.
Beyond this year, one has to wonder how much longer Brees has in the league, and what the Saints offense might look like after his departure, but all other signals from the Saints suggest Tre’Quan is part of their long-term plans. The team spent no draft capital at wide receiver this year, and they recently cut Cameron Meredith despite there being little behind Tre’Quan on the depth chart.
Michael Thomas was just made the NFL’s highest-paid receiver, so it’s rather unrealistic to expect Tre’Quan to ascend beyond the #2 role, but that may be what’s best given his field-stretching skillset. I’m buying as much of him as I can get at his current price, and I prefer him to other under-the-radar second-year receivers like Anthony Miller, and give him the slight edge over Michael Gallup.
To return to an earlier comparison, I view Tre’Quan as a slightly smaller, somewhat less athletic D.K. Metcalf that can be drafted rounds later in startups. Each had similar college production, and are likely best employed as field-stretchers at the NFL level. Both have a well-established #1 receiver in front of them on recently run-heavy offenses led by elite quarterbacks. With rookie breakouts being somewhat rare at the wide receiver position, Tre’Quan is in a much better spot to increase in value in 2019. This is a market inefficiency to exploit.
As always, you can direct any questions, takes, or abuse to me on Twitter @QBLRyan.
Image by Nathan Mills (@NathanMillsPL on Twitter)