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The Best Damn Receiver Who Won’t Make The Hall Of Fame

All members of our Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players brought value to their teams in an underappreciated way — it’s sort of a requirement for enshrinement, after all. But few are outright forgotten in the way that former Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Jimmy Smith has been since his retirement in 2006. Between playing in one of the NFL’s smallest markets during his career and fighting a tough battle with addiction afterwards — both of which likely prevented him from the kind of second act in broadcasting enjoyed by many of his receiving contemporaries — most fans don’t remember just how great Smith was in his prime.

Which is a shame, because he was secretly one of the greatest pass-catchers in NFL history.

HOF resume: Jimmy Smith, WR

Category Value Rank at Pos.
Career AV 126 20
Peak AV 107 5
JAWS* 116.5 10
PFR HOF Monitor 81.5 30
Weighted AV 101 23
Implied HOF% 47.3%

*JAWS is an average of a player’s career and seven-year peak Approximate Value.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

From 1996 through 2002, Smith may have been the best receiver in football. During that period, he ranked second (behind Marvin Harrison) in total catches, first in receiving yards and seventh in touchdown receptions. According to the True Receiving Yards metric I created with Chase Stuart of FootballPerspective.com — which adjusts a receiver’s stats for era, schedule length and team passing volume — only Harrison (8,311 TRY) was more productive over that span than Smith (8,271). Harrison is in the Hall of Fame, along with a number of Smith’s other receiving peers: Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Isaac Bruce, Tim Brown, Cris Carter and, of course, Jerry Rice. But Smith’s Canton case hasn’t gone much more traction than making the preliminary lists of candidates.

We’ve written before that the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a receiver problem. The position’s importance — and its statistical benchmarks — have evolved significantly over time, particularly as the passing game grew to take over the modern sport since the 1990s, but the Hall’s selection committee has struggled to apply an evolving standard to candidates’ resumes. For instance, it might be tempting to write off Smith’s lifetime stats — 862 receptions, 12,287 yards, 67 TD catches — as a product of the modern pass-heavy era. But Smith’s career was already halfway over when the 1999 “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams began to revolutionize the modern passing game; he hung up his cleats for good two seasons before the 2007 New England Patriots further accelerated that trend. By and large, Smith — who retired as the seventh-most-prolific pass-catcher ever — was at the vanguard of the productive receivers who would follow, not the other way around.

[Related: The Football Hall Of Fame Has A Receiver Problem]

Picked out of Division I-AA Jackson State by the Dallas Cowboys in the second round of the 1992 draft, Smith struggled with medical setbacks — a broken leg, an appendectomy — even as the Cowboys’ dynasty was flourishing. By the fall of 1994, he had been cut by Dallas and also the Philadelphia Eagles, leading to a year out of football. But the expansion Jaguars offered Smith’s career a path forward. He signed for 1995 and spent the season working his way up the new team’s depth chart. By 1996, Smith earned a starting role (alongside ex-Browns WR Keenan McCardell) and exploded on the scene with 1,244 yards, as the Jags stunned the NFL with a trip to the AFC Championship Game. In that season’s signature win — a playoff upset at the heavily favored Denver Broncos — Smith had 71 yards and scored the eventual game-winning touchdown.

That set off a stretch of peak seasons for Smith that few other wideouts can top. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s Approximate Value (AV) metric, Smith had 74 AV in his best run of five consecutive seasons (from 1997 through 2001), which is tied with Lance Alworth, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones for fifth-best since 1960. And Smith’s best set of seven straight seasons (1996 through 2002) earns him sole possession of seventh place since 1960, trailing only Rice, Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Michael Irvin, Alworth and Moss.

Jimmy Smith’s peak was among the best ever

Most Approximate Value (AV) in a receiver’s best sets of five and seven consecutive seasons, 1960-2019

Best five Seasons Best seven Seasons
Player Years AV Player Years AV
Jerry Rice 1992-96 91 Jerry Rice 1989-95 121
Michael Irvin 1991-95 86 Marvin Harrison 1999-05 111
Marvin Harrison 1999-03 82 Reggie Wayne 2004-10 105
Reggie Wayne 2004-08 78 Michael Irvin 1991-97 104
Lance Alworth 1963-67 74 Lance Alworth 1963-69 100
Jimmy Smith 1997-01 74 Randy Moss 1998-04 98
Antonio Brown 2013-17 74 Jimmy Smith 1996-02 96
Julio Jones 2014-18 74 Rod Smith 1997-03 94
Rod Smith 1997-01 73 Torry Holt 2000-06 94
Randy Moss 1998-02 73 Wes Welker 2007-13 94

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

McCardell and Smith — dubbed “Thunder and Lightning” — were a historically potent duo at receiver. In fact, McCardell could make his own HoPDGP case. But that makes it even more impressive that Smith stayed so hyper-productive lining up across from another Pro Bowl-level target. As Pro-Football-Reference’s Doug Drinen once astutely noted, football receivers are teammates … but they are also competitors, vying for the quarterback’s attention in addition to fighting off defenders. So it’s telling that Smith never finished behind McCardell in TRY (whether total or per game) during any of their six seasons together. That’s also a big reason why Smith finished fourth among players who started their careers in 1950 or later — behind only Rice, Harrison and Owens — based on their head-to-head TRY against teammates over their careers (after adjusting for aging effects). In his prime, Smith was a receiving machine, easily the most important part of a Jaguars team that won the NFL’s seventh-most games from 1996 through Smith’s retirement after the 2005 season. (In fact, Smith remains the Jags’ all-time franchise leader in AV to this day.)

For all of his successes as a player, Smith has fought more than his share of battles with personal demons over the years. Late in his career, he was suspended under the NFL’s substance-abuse policy; after retiring, he went through even more cycles of rehab, sobriety and relapse, even serving prison time in 2013. Opening up to Gene Frenette of Jacksonville.com in 2016, Smith admitted that his fight against drug addiction is a constant obstacle.

″[Being sober] is not a victory because it’s a lifelong battle,” Smith told Frenette. “I’m human. I got struggles. Please help keep me accountable. I’m scared as hell. Now the real work begins.”

[Related: Our Hall Of Pretty Damn Good Players]

Smith was inducted into the Jaguars’ ring of honor — known as the Pride of the Jaguars — in 2016, and he has appeared at various team events in the years since. The next step for Smith could be Canton, though he appears to have been swept aside in the wave of modern stat-stuffing wideouts who have inflated the statistical requirements for Hall of Fame entry.

According to era-adjusted metrics such as TRY and AV, however, Smith belongs in the conversation of all-time great receivers. And if nothing else, the Hall of Pretty Damn Good is all about keeping great players like him from slipping through the cracks of history.


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Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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