Torrey Smith has a very specific set of skills. He will find you, he will run past you, and he will cause havoc to your defense. Players like Smith can be very valuable to a football team, and the San Francisco 49ers felt like he could be the missing piece to their passing game. In fact, the Niners were so enamored with Smith's abilities, that they shelled out the largest free agent contract they've ever given to an offensive player (5 years/$40 million).
When you look at what Smith had done, and how the 49ers' offense was constructed at the time, bringing him in was a no-brainer. San Francisco had a solid possession receiver in Anquan Boldin, but no one to stretch the defense on the other side. Actually, it had been a while since they had a wide out who really scared defenses deep down field. Smith was that guy.
During his four year stretch with the Baltimore Ravens, Smith showed the ability to wreck games, although his overall stats didn't necessarily show just how much of a difference maker he actually was. From 2011-14, Smith averaged 3.3 catches and 56.1 yards per contest. He also added 30 touchdowns. Over a 16 game season, that adds up to about 53 receptions, 898 yards and 7.5 scores a year. While those are good numbers, they're not out of this world by any means.
But Smith isn't the type of receiver whose role is to catch 100 balls and move the chains. He's the guy you keep defenses honest with, which can make all the difference in the world. Baltimore knew that, and knew how to use him correctly. The 49ers, unfortunately, didn't.
On the surface, Smith's first year by the bay was his worst as a pro. He only managed 33 catches for 663 yards and four touchdowns, all of which are (or matched) career lows. But if you look deeper, you'd see that Smith actually made the most of the opportunities he was given. Smith was targeted a mere 62 times in 2015, or a little less than four a game. He'd never been targeted less than 92 times in any season prior. Despite not getting many chances to make plays, Smith still averaged a career high 20.1 yards per reception. He caught 52.3 percent of the balls thrown his way (tying a career best for him) and scored three touchdowns of 71 yards or more.
In contrast, Smith was targeted 434 times with the Ravens, and season to season, his looks were consistent. He never had less than 92 targets in any given year and averaged 108.5 a season. 2013 was a high water mark in the department (137), which translated to his largest reception and yard total (65/1128). Baltimore also went deep to Smith often, attempting 142 total throws to the speedster of 20 yards or more. 42 of those we caught, and he found the end zone 15 times.
You see, when you actually coach to the strengths of your players, you put them in position to succeed, and good things are bound to happen. Take 2014 for example. Smith drew 12 pass interference penalties that season (including the playoffs) which accounted for 261 extra yards for his team. That's 21.7 yards gained per penalty, which is just as good as a big catch.
So why didn't the 49ers take full advantage of having Smith at their disposal? I think the answer to that had a lot to do with why there's a brand new coaching staff in San Francisco in 2016.
New head coach Chip Kelly knows offense, and you'd have to think he understands the importance of getting Smith involved on a regular basis. The Niners absolutely have to make it a priority to take shots downfield with Smith, as it will benefit all aspects of the attack. Kelly loves to run the football, and having Smith to keep the defenses on their toes will open up space for the backs to work with.
The 49ers had the right idea bringing Smith in, now they just have to make sure they execute the plan on the field. Look for Smith to rebound across the board this upcoming season, as he should reclaim his spot as one of the most dangerous big play threats in the league.
Al Sacco has covered the 49ers for various sites over the years. He's been a guest on multiple podcasts and had his work used by ESPN NFL Insiders and USA TODAY. Follow Al on Twitter @AlSacco49