Maximum Potential: Saints WR Tre’Quan Smith Looks to Have Much Bigger Impact in Year 2

Photo Credit: Wyatt Vaughn, JRNOLA

It goes without saying that Saints 2nd-year wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith is hoping to have a lot bigger impact in the upcoming 2019 NFL Season than he had last season as a rookie after the Black and Gold drafted the 23-year old in the 3rd Round in the 2018 NFL Draft.

“I feel like it’s very important for me just to come out and give everybody (an example) of what I’m very capable of,” Smith said to reporters recently at the team’s annual Saints Hall of Fame Celebrity Golf Classic prior to the organization taking its regularly-scheduled month-long summer vacation in advance of the start of Saints 2019 Training Camp next month.

“Even though I didn’t have a good season in Year 1, it’s onto bigger and better things, and I’ve really got to prove myself all over again and show everybody … being a great asset to this team.”

The Delray Beach, Florida native also feels that he can demonstrate to the coaching staff the amount of progression that he’s made both mentally as well as physically, with a year of experience in the NFL and learning the complexities or the proverbial “in and outs” and all of the little nuances that come Sean Payton’s offensive system.

Photo Credit: Phillip Petty III, JRNOLA

“I feel like I’m way further along,” he said. “I can hit the ground running, and now I’m not just taking baby steps. I know what to expect, and I know how to prepare for things.”

Tre’Quan should now see an even bigger role in the offense moving forward as the Saints coaching staff will look to get him more involved this season, as he seeks to further grow in his role as the team’s designated #3 WR behind starting starters Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn. Jr.

But the hope is that the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder can get closer to reaching his maximum potential — after it appeared that he had hit the mythical “rookie wall” last season. Smith finished his 2018 rookie season with 28 catches for 427 yards and 5 touchdowns, but the majority of his production was accumulated in two home games at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with big performances against NFC East division teams the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles’ in which he totaled 268 yards and 3 TDs alone.

While it’s quite evident that Michael Thomas is one of the elite-caliber WR’s in the entire NFL, the organization clearly is counting on Tre’Quan and the rest of the receiving corps to “step up” their level of performance, which speaks to the confidence that have in the players behind Thomas on the current depth chart.

As of this moment, that depth chart behind Thomas includes Ginn (who missed a chunk of time during the middle of the season due to injury), Smith, the still-recovering Cam Meredith (who originally would have filled the #3 WR role last year but ended up back on Injured Reserve), and 2nd-year undrafted veteran Keith Kirkwood, the team’s 5th WR last season who experienced some rookie struggles of his very own.

That apparently was the whole reason why the Saints ultimately chose to not draft a wide receiver in the recently-completed 2019 NFL Draft, in spite of the fact that rumors to the contrary predicting that Saints’ team brass had every intention of targeting a player at that position.

“I was like, ‘They didn’t have to. They got me and Keith there,’” Smith said to reporters at that charity event, which raises money to fund the team’s outstanding (and non-profit) Saints Hall of Fame Museum, located at Gate B on the Plaza level of the Superdome. “We’re great players, so I’m kind of happy they didn’t. That just shows the organization believes in us and believes in our ability.”

Photo Credit: Wyatt Vaughn, JRNOLA

Just how much faith the coaching staff has in his and Kirkwood’s abilities is likely subjective up to a certain point; which means that any number of other WR’s that currently are on the team’s roster heading into Training Camp next month could and should get an opportunity to make the team leading into the season in early September.

Among the other names that will be pushing hard for the team’s 5th and possible 6th WR spot include names such as undrafted veterans Austin Carr and Simmie Cobbs. along with undrafted rookies Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Micah Wright, Deonte Harris, and Emmanuel Butler. Additionally, recently-signed former LSU track star and super-fast (but inexperienced) Cyril Grayson, Jr. and 8th-year veteran Rishard Matthews have been thrown into the mix as well.

Since becoming head coach 13 years ago, Payton has often been known to move receivers in and out of the line-up like pieces on a chess board, but much more importantly, he places a heavy value upon players that are versatile enough to play multiple roles within the team’s passing game.

However, Payton’s original intention for Tre’Quan was presumably going to be based on one simple role for him until he gained more playing experience at the slot position.

Because of the injury to Ginn last year, Tre’Quan ended up being placed into the role of outside receiver at the flanker position, and not in the slot. Now with the addition of Jared Cook at tight end (who is particularly effective running routes as a “slot TE”), the Saints will likely put Ginn back outside, although the additional versatility that Smith has gained in the process could allow him to see a much-expanded role in 2019.

Smith, a college superstar at the University of Central Florida, came to New Orleans last season with a lot of hype for a 3rd-Round draft pick, which undoubtedly had something to do with the fact that he had an insane 13 touchdown receptions on only 59 catches as a junior in 2017 before turning pro a year early.

Out of his 168 career catches, 41 of Smith’s receptions went for 20-plus yards, establishing him as an elite-caliber downfield threat, which surprisingly came despite Smith’s lack of top-end “deep speed.” At the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, Smith only ran a 4.49 40, which isn’t necessarily the type of speed that you’d typically want in a deep threat/downfield target wide receiver.

But obviously, when he’s on the field Smith has a “2nd gear” that allowed him to consistently blow past some of college football’s better defenders during his time with the up-and-coming Golden Knights football program based in Orlando.

One of the reasons that he wasn’t drafted higher than where the Saints were able to grab him with the 91st overall pick is because Smith, even now with one year of NFL experience under his belt, is still in the process of learning how to play the WR position in general, and the coaching staff would like to see him continually show growth and further development in other areas such as hand-eye coordination and route-running.

A former basketball player and track star, Smith actually had very little experience with football up until several years ago. Nevertheless, he was named to the all-state team during his first full season playing football at Village Academy High School in Palm Beach County — which was actually his junior year of high school when was finally convinced to play the sport. Basketball was always Smith’s first choice, so it took some persuading from coaches and mentors to get him to even play football to begin with.

He then collected 1,086 receiving yards, 12 touchdowns, and seven interceptions during his high school senior season in 2013, with two being returned for touchdowns, as a receiver and defensive back. But he wasn’t highly recruited, and eventually chose to head north from South Florida to Orlando.

Smith redshirted his freshman year in 2014, as UCF won a share of the AAC regular-season title that season “on the back” of an impressive WR corps that included current Baltimore Ravens WR Breshad Perriman. The following season in 2015, Smith was actually the lone “bright spot” for an otherwise godawful Golden Knights team that went 0-12. He was named 2015 AAC Freshman of the Year despite being on a winless team, with 52 catches for 724 yards and 4 TDs.

But it was his sophomore season in 2016, where his chance to become a true star in the sport of football really began; thanks to the hiring of then-UCF (and now current University of Nebraska) head coach Scott Frost. Smith flourished in Frost’s offense, even despite the “growing pains” of then-freshman and current junior QB McKenzie Milton. His numbers improved only moderately from 2015, but the influx of additional recruits on the offensive side of the ball that year likely diminished those statistics.

Finally in 2017, Smith “broke out”, as he emerged as Milton’s favorite target during his final season in Orlando by tallying 1,171 yards and those 13 touchdowns on just the previously-mentioned 59 total receptions, which is pretty remarkable since it means that he averaged a ridiculous 19.8 yards per catch.

Tre’Quan’s “break-out” numbers led the team in catches, yards and TD’s, and as a result, Tre’Quan was named to the All-AAC (American Athletic Conference) 1st Team. The Golden Knights finished that very same 2017 college season with an undefeated record (13-0), but they weren’t chosen to compete in the College Football Playoffs.

But they were extended an invitation to the 2017 Peach Bowl, where Smith really opened eyes and literally caught nearly everything thrown in his direction in the final quarter. It was that game that may have erased any lingering doubts about his ability, and it was one of the main reasons why Smith chose to leave UCF early and declared for the draft.

“He’s long. He’s athletic in and out of his cuts. (He) Still needs to work on his lower body strength but he’s handled the install well,” Payton said to reporters right after the draft last year; “I think he’s a quick study. He’s big and he’s doing a good job.”

General Manager Mickey Loomis during that very same press conference added that Smith in their eyes was easily the best available player on the Draft Board at that exact moment. when the team decided to pull the trigger and select him.

“No. No. I think this is a case where at the point in the draft where we were at this was a player that was graded the highest in the group where we were,” Loomis explained. “I wouldn’t say there was a glaring hole (on the roster) or anything like that. This was a player we liked a lot and we’re glad to have him.”

“Our scouting department had high grades on this guy. They talked about him early on… He’s was impressive in the interviews we had with him. He was impressive at the Senior Bowl also.”

As for Smith himself, he just wants to get to work and prove to everyone that he does, in fact, belong in the NFL, despite the assumptions and perhaps a few off-base opinions of a few Who Dats that felt Smith didn’t flash the entire array of talents that he was said to be coming into the professional ranks with.

One saving grace for Tre’Quan without question other than the expectation of him becoming the team’s designated deep ball target / downfield option of the future; are his elite blocking skills — which in the past have been singled out by many experts that included an anonymous NFL scout who recently told Rotoworld that Smith “may have” been the best blocking wide receiver he saw in the entire 2018 draft class last year.

Clearly that’s an area where Smith excels, and given the fact that Payton’s always been adamant about each one of his squad’s receivers to adequately demonstrate the ability to run-block effectively, that trait alone makes Smith a virtual “lock” to hold down the #3 WR role, barring some unbelievable or jaw-dropping performance from one of the other pass-catchers that will be competing for a final roster spot.

Call it the “rookie wall” or whatever other analogy that you’d prefer to use regarding his notable “drop off” at the end of last season, but it would be foolish for any one to think that Tre’Quan isn’t making progress and plenty of it; as his 2nd season rapidly approaches in a little less than 2 and a half more months from now when the Houston Texans visit the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday Night. September 9th.

Make absolutely no mistake about this much: Tre’Quan Smith is more than capable of reaching his maximum potential — starting now in his 2nd NFL season and especially in the following Saints seasons that still lie ahead in the future.

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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