If my team is Popeye, Smith is the can of spinach.
Choosing a receiving corps to defend the planet was easier than picking the team’s starting running back. Other than a day of indecision between two players that concluded with me adding both to my corps and bumping one of my slot receivers to special teams, I knew who I wanted and how they would fit.
There are dozens of receivers that deserve consideration for this squad. Here are 12 who crossed my mind:
- Larry Fitzgerald – There are few players in the history of the game that track the ball as well as Fitzgerald. His college highlights contain some of the best contested catches I’ve ever seen at any level. He’ll be a reserve on my team.
- Calvin Johnson – Megatron is one receiver I thought about for a while. He’s arguably the most physically dominant receiver in the history of the game. He’s my other reserve, but he doesn’t earn the starting role.
- Lance Alworth – Graceful, speedy, fluid, and a great ball tracker, he played in an era where receivers were manhandled at the line of scrimmage. He also played in an era with simpler coverage schemes. Fantastic player, but I never considered him seriously for my scheme. I understand why Mark Schofield did.
- Anquan Boldin – At one point, Boldin was Terrell Owens with better hands and a better team attitude. Tough as nails, leaving Boldin off this squad hurts a little bit whenever I think about it.
- Isaac Bruce – He posted one of the most dominant seasons (1995: 119-1781-13) when the Rams Greatest Show on Turf was little more than 22 clowns stuffed in a car. Breathtaking player.
- Marvin Harrison – The silent assassin was so much more than the lucky S.O.B. who played with Peyton Manning. He often made Peyton Manning look great.
- Michael Irvin – So strong, technically savvy, and confident, Irvin’s locker room presence could be both an asset and a detriment, depending on the other personalities in the room.
- Sterling Sharpe – Strong, tough, and had a rapport with my quarterback before a career-ending injury.
- Brandon Lloyd – The man’s skill at adjusting to the football is artistry. I’m still so in awe of his body control and hands that if we could win the planet back with a one-on-one drill with an alien cornerback and a receiver and I was confident Lloyd was feeling his best, he’d be one of three receivers that I’d consider for the job.
- Cris Carter – Carter would be on of those three (see above).
- John Jefferson – Another Lloyd-like talent with awesome body control and hands whose career flamed out too early.
- Andre Johnson – Terrell Owens might be slightly better after the catch, but Johnson is on the same level and he has better hands and maturity. Like Megatron, Optimus Prime earned serious consideration.
Despite the talents of these 12 and dozens of others, there was never a question that Steve Smith would be on my team.
Unless you haven’t seen my weekly, facetious tweets throughout 2014 where, whenever he dominated a defender, I tweeted “Steve Smith is too old,” you may not know I’m a die-hard fan. Although the final criteria for my decision was not based on stats, Chase Stuart would at least understand my choice–if not fully approve.
Smith is a game-wrecker, an enforcer, and an IED disguised in a mascot’s body. He’s the prank I hope I can play on the aliens, praying that they somehow missed Smith while scouting our game’s history from afar. Watching them bewildered on the sidelines after Smith schools them would be priceless.
I doubt they overlooked him. It doesn’t matter, I didn’t pick Smith to trick anyone. His skill, big-game performances, personality, and psychological makeup are exactly what I’m seeking for my team to defend the planet.
The Two Sides of the Same Smith: 5-9/9-5
Smith plays his position at both extremes of the physical spectrum. Depending on what you need from him on a given play, Smith is a 5’9″ water bug or a 9’5″ giant. I can’t think of a wide receiver that does this as well as Smith.
I’m not sure there’s a player in football who does. Imagine if Darren Sproles had Marshawn Lynch’s power and balance, that’s Smith in a nutshell.
Smith also has an extraordinary integration of skills and mindset that most pro receivers envy:
- Vertical leap
- Body control
- Focus in tight, physical coverage
- Knowledge of angles to win battles of leverage
Atlanta Falcons broadcasters routinely tell viewers that Roddy White was a wrestler. I loved White’s game in his prime, but if White is a wrestler at the receiver position then the rugged Smith is an MMA powerhouse.
When it comes to throwing defenders around, 6-5, 225-pound receivers don’t do it as often as Smith. The mighty mite manages to take it a step further and does it from odd pursuit angles:
Need a blocker in the screen game? Smith summons his 9-5 mentality:
Need Smith to come at his opponent directly? Done.
Need to bully the bully? Smith has your antidote:
Smith can also take what his opponents dish out:
Jon Gruden says Smith’s highlight reel of runs after the catch might be the most impressive of any receiver when considering how many piles of trash he’s emerged from throughout his career. One of my favorites is this play against the Texans where Smith is the bottom receiver on the left running a crossing route to the middle of the field.
What’s endearing about Smith’s attitude is that he would be the first to say that much of his success after the catch comes from bad tackling. It sounds modest, but there’s an edge to the statement that lets you know he’s needling opponents.
It’s as if Smith would prefer to tell the media that his opponents were bad while only implying that he made them look that way. He could say he’s the best and no one can stop him, but that’s bulletin board material. No, he’s smarter than that: the defense didn’t tackle well, the cornerback didn’t finish the game, the defensive back needs to “ice up.”
His success is far more than defenders making mistakes. It’s highly concentrated doses of effort, confidence, and passion in packed into an incendiary device. Smith is the on-field manifestation of will.
An Indoctrinated Underdog
When he entered the league, Smith was already written off as a receiver before he got his shot. No one expected Smith to play beyond his size or to do it for much of his career with average quarterback play, at best.
He’s accustomed to competition that has the advantage on paper. I can’t say the same for either of the Johnson’s I left off my receiving corps. I don’t believe that Calvin or Andre Johnson would be intimidated by the alien competition, but I am willing to entertain the possibility that neither of these guys have been physically dominated for some time.
What happens when bigger receivers used to being bullies have their height-speed factor neutralized? Do they rise to the challenge or go into a shell?
There’s potential for that moment and we can only guess how they’d respond. Smith has always been staring up at his competition.
There will be no psychological surprises. Smith will take the fight to the aliens.
It’s another reason Smith is my first choice: He brings the fire. Every team needs at least one player that can ignite passion. Even as a fan of quiet, resilient players who act like they’re up 21-0 after they fumble the ball while losing 0-21 and rebound from those mistakes, I recognize that you need players who can keep the team loose as well as light a fire under their ass.
Steve Smith is that butane Zippo with a 007-like flamethrower mechanism tucked inside. If this team needs a kick in the ass or we need someone to take the opponent off their game, Smith will only be happy to oblige.
And if I need him to return kicks and punts, he’ll probably do it better than my starters if I’m being honest. His versatility is not lost on me. I can use Smith on the end-around and reverse and get a ton out from my multiple scheme.
Small Frame, Big Game
Don’t presume that Smith earned the edge over Calvin or Andre Johnson on attitude and versatility alone. Despite lacking a top NFL quarterback during most of his playoff appearances where he was the marked man, Smith has 59 receptions, 1001 yards, and 9 touchdowns in 11 games. Smith averages 17 yards per catch, including the 35-year-old Raven’s 2015 postseason with an 8-145-1 stat-line during 2 playoff games (18.1 yards per catch).
Calvin Johnson has less experience in the playoffs with 2 games, 17 catches, 296 yards, and 2 touchdowns (17.4 yards per catch). Good work, but in 11 games, Smith has scored a touchdown in 8 of them. Smith is 23rd all-time in career playoff receptions and 13th in yards despite appearing in a 30-50 percent fewer games many greats atop these boards: Jerry Rice, Reggie Wayne, Michael Irvin, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas, Cliff Branch, Drew Pearson, Marvin Harrison, John Stallworth, Art Monk, etc.
Versatile, clutch, fast, and fiery, Smith is the ultimate game wrecker.
Matt Waldman runs this joint called the Rookie Scouting Portfolio blog. He also writes one of the most insanely comprehensive analysis of skill position prospects available to the public called the RSP. Draftniks and fantasy owners swear by it. Download the RSP and RSP Post-Draft for one insane price here and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, which trains individuals, communities, educators, coaches, government and civic organizations to prevent and address sexual abuse in their communities. Learn more about the RSP publications.