The Carolina Panthers on Thursday released Steve Smith, the franchise’s all-time leading receiver, and he was snapped up Friday by the Baltimore Ravens – so it’s a good time to take stock of his career. The numbers say Smith is one of the best, and most underrated, wideouts of all time.
As my former colleague Chase Stuart has repeatedly noted, Smith’s raw numbers have always understated his worth because of an unfortunate combination of injuries, a mediocre supporting cast at quarterback and receiver, and the team’s run-heavy strategy. But when Smith was healthy, he was as valuable as any pass-catcher.
After the 2012 season — and before the 2013 season, when it became clear Smith had exited his prime years — Stuart found that Smith rated as the sixth-best receiver ever in two important yet under-the-radar stats: individual percentage of team receiving yards and receiving yards per team passing attempt. Neither metric is the final word on a receiver, but both reflect aspects that are central to the position.
A player’s share of his team’s receiving yards is important because it represents a receiver’s market share of available statistics. As Pro-Football-Reference.com founder Doug Drinen once pointed out, receivers are the only players in football who directly compete with their own teammates for touches. (Other positions have their skirmishes, but they rarely battle while on the field at the same time.) So it really means something when a team funnels so many of its passes to one guy.
Yards per passing attempt is also crucial. It accounts for how much a team throws the ball. Stuart and I conducted research last summer suggesting that when a team increases its passing attempts by 2 percent, its receivers will see about a 1 percent boost in production — a factor that can really add up at the extremes. Smith’s numbers were stunted relative to his peers because he played in rush-focused offenses that passed about 8 percent less than the NFL average over the course of his career.
After we account for these handicaps, Smith looks like an all-time great. His 2005 campaign ranks extremely high in the aforementioned metrics, and his performance in 2008 stands out as one of the most commanding ever by a receiver. That year, Smith led the NFL in receiving yards per game despite the Panthers attempting the fewest passes in the league — the only time that’s happened since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.
Smith’s numbers have dropped off in recent years (no surprise; he’ll turn 35 in May), so it’s not clear how much production he’ll bring to Baltimore in 2014. But when he was at his peak, few receivers ever dominated their team’s passing game more.