Similarity scores are a great way to predict players' potential, but they only work for players who have an active track record in the NFL. For the San Francisco 49ers, we’ve looked at Colin Kaepernick, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin already, leaving just one projected 2015 starter left to analyze: free-agent acquisition Torrey Smith.
The trouble with making projections for Torrey Smith is the fact he’s shifting offenses and quarterbacks this season. His similarity scores would describe his potential growth better if he had remained in Baltimore and was continuing to work with Joe Flacco.
We don’t know how Geep Chryst’s offense will differ from Gary Kubiak’s, but Smith’s totals are bound to be affected. Flacco is also, at this point, a more accurate and powerful passer than Kaepernick but doesn’t have the same ability to extend plays with his legs. They’re two very different quarterbacks, which is hard to quantify.
Still, even if there are more caveats in Smith’s projections than other players, he’s still the same player he was last year. He’s one of the league’s top deep threats, and that skill set isn’t going anywhere.
Hampered by a knee injury and a case of the drops last season, Smith put up career lows in receptions, yards and yards per reception. Do players with that sort of drop-off tend to bounce back, or should we be concerned Smith might have peaked already?
The list of Smith’s top 25 comparables doesn’t feature as many Hall of Famers as Anquan Boldin’s, though Fred Biletnikoff shows up as the second name. It actually features quite a few past 49ers, such as Antonio Bryant, Terrell Owens and Bernie Casey. As always, the top 300 can be viewed in a Google Doc. Here are the top 25:
|Top 25 Comparable Players to Torrey Smith, 2012-2014|
|Pro Football Reference|
You can see that Smith is a bit of a throwback receiver just from the eras his comparable players come from. Eight of the top 25 predate the 1978 rule changes, which liberalized the passing game somewhat, not to mention the short-passing revolution Paul Brown, Bill Walsh and the West Coast Offense ushered in.
Smith’s numbers and usage would have fit right into the days of three yards and a cloud of dust, where running was still the primary way to move the football, completion percentages were low and yards per attempt were high.
That’s indicative of the fact that Smith hasn’t developed into a true No. 1 receiver; he’s a deep threat first and foremost. He didn't really run very many underneath routes in his time in Baltimore. That’s alright, though, as the 49ers have Anquan Boldin to work those routes, which will let Smith do what he does best and stretch the field vertically.
It just means that unlike the top receivers in the NFL, Smith needs a complementary player in order to really excel. As long as the 49ers have that complementary possession receiver, Smith should do just fine.
Smith’s top comparable, Ernest Givins, spent most of his career in the run-and-shoot offense with Warren Moon in Houston. Significantly smaller than Smith at just 5’9” and 178 pounds, Givens made a career out of reading defenses from the slot and adjusting to get open. His dip in 1989 was a one-year fluke; he rebounded to his historical numbers the next season and made the first of his two Pro Bowls from his 10-year career.
Those Houston offenses featured a mobile quarterback in Moon and receivers adjusting to find open areas of the field; that might be a blueprint for a successful offense for Kaepernick and Smith going forward.
The big question is whether Smith’s comparables bounced back after a third-season drop-off. The answer, sadly, is mostly no. Of the 23 players who played the season after the end of the comparison period end—eliminating Antonio Bryant, who was out of football in 2007, and Michael Floyd, who hasn’t played the 2015 season yet—12 players saw their yardage totals drop again in the next season, while only 11 saw their numbers bounce back up. Though almost no players saw a major drop-off, most of them still hovered around the 600- to 800-yard range.
|Year N+1 Yardage Totals for Smith's Top Comparables|
|1000-1200||4||Clayton, Colston, Garrison, Scott|
|800-1000||4||Burford, Givins, Moore, Scott|
|600-800||8||Abramowicz, Biletnikoff, Carrier, Casey, Hilliard, Holmes, Phillips|
|Pro Football Reference|
The averages, again ignoring Bryant and Floyd, do see a slight upward increase. The average receptions for the comparable players in the next season goes from 50.2 to 54.0, the yardage increases from 780.9 to 820.8 and the touchdowns increase from 5.7 to 6.2. That’s small enough to be just general fluctuation—normally, when a player has a small but significant dropoff like Smith, it holds true for the next season as well.
|Year N+1 Seasons for Smith's Top Comparables|
|Pro Football Reference|
That doesn’t mean, however, that Smith is guaranteed to have another season around 750 yards receiving. Anywhere within 200 yards of that total would be more or less consistent with what similar players managed to do. An optimist can point to a new system in which Smith won’t be a third option behind Steve Smith and Owen Daniels and declare that there is every opportunity for Smith to take another step forward in 2015.
San Francisco fans, after all, have seen exactly that happen. The best-case scenario and largest increase from one season to the next among Smith’s comparables is Terrell Owens. Owens’ numbers dropped in 1999 thanks to Steve Young’s career-ending injury and the lesser quarterback play of Steve Stenstrom and a first-year Jeff Garcia.
In 2000, however, Owens became the receiver we think of today. He burst into the ranks of top receivers with 1,451 receiving yards on 97 receptions, averaging over 100 yards per game for the first time. That year saw the first of his six Pro Bowls and five All-Pro nods, as he took the torch from Jerry Rice as the 49ers’ top receiver.
|Top Year N+1 Seasons for Smith's Comparables|
|Pro Football Reference|
However, looking at the players who had the best year N+1 seasons, you can see that most of their yardage totals were impacted by events outside their control. Owens’ starting quarterback got hurt. Eddie Brown and Mark Clayton had their seasons shortened thanks to the 1987 strike. Marques Colston missed a significant amount of time with a broken thumb, which is closer to Smith’s knee injury, though Smith didn’t actually miss any time. Santonio Holmes is the only one who didn’t have an obvious explanation for his drop-off, but he couldn’t maintain his year N+1 performance.
Owens was an example of a player making the leap from good to great, and he’s the only such example in all of Smith’s top comparables. Owens’ comparable seasons were the prelude to his emergence as a Hall of Fame-caliber force at the position, and no one else on the list can really make that claim. There are plenty of fine seasons on the list, but hoping Torrey Smith becomes an all-round threat in the Owens mold is probably wishful thinking.
In short, there’s really no statistical reason to think Smith is going to suddenly burst onto the scene as a true No. 1 receiver. The similar players point to him continuing to get between 750 and 850 yards, just like he did in 2011, 2012 and 2014. If you want to argue he is poised to break out, the justification has to be predicated on the change of teams and quarterbacks and not his past performance on the field.