"I can dominate the outside, but I want to move into the slot and prolong my career."
-Steve Smith, 2010
Now is the time for the Carolina Panthers to finally grant Steve Smith his last wish. Now is the time to move Smith to the slot, permanently.
Steve Smith is clearly in decline. The 34 year old receiver is on pace for just 812 yards and four touchdowns this season. What’s even more alarming is that he is averaging a career-worst 11.3 yards per catch, after averaging 16.1 and 17.6 yards with Cam Newton in 2011 and 2012, respectively. This number is even worse than his disastrous 2010 season, where he averaged 12 yards per catch.
Watching the film helps confirm these statistics. Smith is dropping routine catches, and on the passes he is catching, he is unable to get as many tough yards after the catch because of his declining acceleration and speed. This has also limited his ability to vertically separate from cornerbacks on deeper routes.
However, at this stage in his career, Steve Smith can still be an excellent slot receiver. He still runs precise routes, and his YAC ability is also still above average because he has excellent field vision and elusiveness in small spaces. And although he is dropping more passes than he used to, he is still a fairly dependable pass catcher because he is very physical at the catch point.
Moving Steve Smith to the slot improves the entire offense by osmosis. One of the biggest benefits is that Ted Ginn Jr. can start on the outside. The 28 year old is having a very productive season, as his skill set as a down-field receiver has perfectly matched Cam Newton’s strength as a deep passer. Ginn is already on pace for almost 900 yards receiving and eight touchdowns, despite playing in only 45% of the snaps in the Panthers offense thus far. More snaps will lead to more opportunities for Ginn to continue making plays down the field.
The Panthers run game should also improve. With Ginn and LaFell on the outside, and Olsen and Smith on the inside, defenses cannot afford to over commit to putting bodies in the box to stop the run, as they will always need to respect the Panthers vertical passing game. Fewer men up front should make it easier for the Panthers running backs and Cam Newton to run the ball more successfully.
Cam Newton also struggles on short and intermediate passes, but to be fair, he has never had a receiver who truly specialized in those areas. Greg Olsen has always been a big tight end who excels deeper down the field, while Brandon LaFell lacks the quickness and elusiveness after the catch. With Smith in the slot, Cam will finally have a chance to work on one his biggest weaknesses by throwing to his favorite target.
Over three years ago Steve Smith publicly stated that he wanted to be moved to the slot full time to end his career. Time is running out. The Panthers can, and should, grant him his final wish.