New-Look 49ers Offense Takes Shape with Addition of Deep Threat Torrey Smith

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterMarch 11, 2015

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Jim Harbaugh is gone. Greg Roman is gone. Frank Gore and Mike Iupati are gone, per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com and Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic, and Michael Crabtree has one foot out the door. If a report by KBME SportsTalk 790's Jayson Braddock is accurate, even Colin Kaepernick may not be long for the Bay Area.

Together with the surprise retirements of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers fans have been trapped in terrifying limbo. Who'll be starring for their team in 2015? Is an offense that finished 25th in the league in scoring about to get significantly worse?

Will any difference-makers take the Levi's Stadium field in in red and gold this fall?

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

On the first day of NFL free agency Tuesday, they got an answer: Yes. Speedy receiver Torrey Smith, long of the Baltimore Ravens, signed a five-year, $40 million deal with $22 million guaranteed with the 49ers, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. Smith, 49ers fans haven't forgotten, worked together with current 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin in Baltimore—and helped send the 49ers home from Super Bowl XLVII empty-handed.

The 6'0", 205-pound Smith adds a vertical dimension to the 49ers offense that was desperately missing in 2014. Besides being able to run under Kaepernick's strong-armed passes and scare opposing defensive coordinators into accounting for his speed, Smith's a more complete receiver than the 49ers' recent one-trick ponies (See; Ginn Jr., Ted).

Will the acquisition of Smith offset the massive veteran losses the 49ers have already suffered, and may yet suffer?

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That's to be determined. But 49ers fans, for the first time since everything started falling apart, have a rock to cling to. Owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke have gone out and made a serious commitment to a serious talent; they may have also given fans a glimpse into the 49ers' offensive future.

Torrey Smith Career Rate Stats
Pro Football Reference

Smith's ability as a deep threat is clear from his production over his first four seasons in the NFL. He hauled in a whopping average of 16.9 yards across his 213 catches. Per Pro Football Reference, Smith is one of just seven receivers to catch 100 passes over the last four years and average more than 16 yards per catch.

The others? Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson, Josh Gordon and Malcom Floyd.

Despite these explosive numbers, Smith hasn't been a Pro Bowl-level all-around threat. He's averaged just 3.3 receptions a game throughout his career, and for all the long bombs, he's usually been good for only a handful of touchdowns a season.

Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

In 2013, his most productive year, the Ravens targeted Smith 137 times, and he caught 65 passes for 1,128 yards.

The 2014 season was a little different. Under offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, Smith took on a more complete role. Despite a career low in targets per game, Smith posted a career-best catch rate and by far his best touchdown total.

Even though 2014 featured Smith running shorter routes and doing much more red-zone work, his deep-target rate of 23.6 percent, per Pro Football Focus, greatly outstripped both Boldin's (9.9 percent) and Crabtree's (15.7 percent).

Hands are Smith's biggest problem; even with a career-best year catching the football, he finished 49th of 50 qualifying receivers in Pro Football Focus' Drop Rate statistics. His ability to get open on deep and intermediate routes is unquestioned; whether he can continue to improve his hands isn't.

Chris B. Brown @smartfootball

Maybe I'm alone but I don't love Torrey Smith signing. High volume guy (compare targets to catches) and just OK hands http://t.co/2gK7p3Fu5j

Of course, the 26-year-old is far from a finished product.

As Smith wrote on his personal blog, he "literally dreamed" of playing for the Ravens after attending college at Maryland. Despite winning "the ultimate prize," a Super Bowl championship, Smith dealt with a lot of coaching turnover, playing under three different offensive coordinators in four years. Smith wished, he wrote, he'd gotten a chance to work with his 2014 receivers coach, Bobby Engram, for more than one season.

In Ronald Curry, the 49ers also have a younger, former NFL wide receiver coaching their wideouts. Though Curry's one of the few holdovers from the Harbaugh regime, head coach Jim Tomsula and the 49ers denied the Buffalo Bills the chance to interview him this offseason, per CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco.

If Curry can help Smith work on his receiving craft and offensive coordinator Geep Chryst can rebuild Kaepernick's game, the potential is there for these two young players to put up pinball numbers.

It's important for 49ers fans (and the rest of the NFC West) to remember: Smith's acquisition is the first step of the offensive rebuild, not the last.

Step one is addressing the quarterback position. If, as Baalke told Maiocco, Kaepernick "is [their] quarterback," Chryst has to craft a system and approach that gets the best out of the spectacularly talented signal-caller.

Step two is fixing the run game. Right tackle was a huge problem for the 49ers last season, and the left guard, Iupati, has signed with the Arizona Cardinals. Sophomore center Marcus Martin will need to take a big step forward after his injury-marred rookie year, and so will tailback Carlos Hyde.

Even with all of that, the shocking regression of 31-year-old tight end Vernon Davis left the 49ers, for the first time since he was drafted No. 6 overall in 2006, without a deep threat at the position, further hamstringing their downfield attack.

To ensure Kaepernick doesn't spend all of 2015 throwing sideways, as he did in 2014, the 49ers must look hard at adding more deep threats—whether that means adding a free-agent tight end, dipping into this year's talented receiver draft class, or both.

Smith's addition, though, is a great first step; with Dez Bryant off the market, the 49ers couldn't have found a more explosive receiver. Better yet, shelling out big money for the best available player at a position of need is a comforting sign to 49ers fans everywhere that Baalke and the rest of the front office aren't just tearing down the old, winning roster—they're building a new one.

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