When the news broke that Torrey Smith was signing with the Eagles in 2017, it was met with positive feedback. At the trade deadline in 2016 he was a speculative target for a team in need of an established veteran and a receiver with speed. Smith checked both boxes, but in just a few hours he was old news as the team signed Alshon Jeffery.
His statistical output was minimal in his one year in Philadelphia, starting 14 games and hauling in just 36 passes for 430 yards in the regular season.
But in the two years since he was traded to the Panthers the Eagles have struggled to replace him.
Make no mistake, the efforts have been there, they just haven’t gone as planned.
Smith’s impact on the Eagles’ offense was felt beyond the box score and was a result of his skillset.
In 2017 he led all receivers in CUSH — a statistic that measures how far a defensive back plays off a wide receiver at the line of scrimmage — with a healthy 7.4 yards on average, tying Cooper Kupp. Just below Smith were Taylor Gabriel, Travis Benjamin, Tyreek Hill and DeSean Jackson. Opposing teams were forced to respect his speed and ability to make plays down the field, and the Eagles did well establishing what he could do.
The first offensive play of the 2017 season was a deep shot to Smith that may have resulted in a touchdown had Carson Wentz not slipped on the throw. Pre-snap Washington’s safety was playing 17 yards deep. The following play, with Smith on the sideline, both safeties were within 10 yards of the line.
It’s a small sample size, but often the threat of Smith produced positive results, providing spacing for the offense.
Even when he wasn’t producing yards he still helped move offenses down the field throughout his career. In 2017 alone he drew three pass interference calls during the regular season for 92 yards and another in the playoffs. While that can often be chalked up to luck, for Smith that was never the case.
Before coming to Philadelphia he had drawn 38 pass interference penalties, leading the league in 2015 with 12 for 261 yards. By the time he was finished in Philadelphia he had accumulated nearly 900 yards in penalties up to that point in his career.
But production plays a role as well.
In 2019 Nelson Agholor, for all of his warts, had speed and the ability to separate, tying for sixth in average separation at 3.4 yards on average, but still struggled to make plays down the field. Adding to his inability to finish plays down field, he drew just one pass interference penalty for 14 yards.
While the Eagles offense has desperately been in need of speed, that alone hasn’t been enough.
Mike Wallace and DeSean Jackson were both seen as upgrades to Smith and their bodies of work would support that, however the two have played in only five of the Eagles last 35 games, leaving the role Smith filled vacant. The team realizes that and it’s part of why they reached out to Smith to gauge his interest in returning last season after retiring
The Eagles have thrown a handful of darts to hopefully supplement a roster that’s been in dire of speed, though most are unproven.
The hope is that Jackson can stay healthy enough to give the Eagles what they need, but if not what’s next? In comes the importance of Marquise Goodwin. Unlike the stable of rookie receivers the team will look to, Goodwin has had success in a role similar to what Smith’s was, playing on the outside.
In 2017 he produced the best season of his career, hauling in 56 passes for 962 yards. Despite shoddy quarterback play, throughout his career he’s produced at least 14.9 yards per reception in seasons in which he’s garnered at least 20 targets. He was the perfect replacement for what Smith brought to a championship offense or insurance for Jackson, even if he wasn’t a guarantee to make the roster.
Goodwin, however, elected to opt out of the season, rightfully putting the health of his family first and now the Eagles will rely on the stable of Jalen Reagor, John Hightower or Quez Watkins to fill the burner role if Jackson can’t stay healthy.
That’s not a promising strategy.
While all three bring world class speed to the team, there’s more to being a legitimate deep threat than running fast. If that were the case one of either Bryce Treggs or Shelton Gibson could’ve effectively filled that role.
Fortunately for the trio of rookies, the burner role isn’t one the team heavily relies on, as evidenced by Smith’s numbers. If anything keeping a defense honest and occasionally making plays down field would be an effective way to ease into that role. The Eagles have shown they prefer to work the short and intermediate areas of the field with their tight ends and running backs, relieving the pressure a more polished receiver like Tyreek Hill would face to produce. But there will be that expectation if they line up in that spot.
As evidenced by the Eagles’ offense the last two years, trotting out a toothless passing attack when it comes to big plays is difficult to do.
Of the Eagles’ 43 touchdown drives last season, 24 of them required at least eight plays, with six requiring four or fewer. One of those six came in Week 1 when Jackson capped a three-play drive with a 53-yard touchdown pass from Carson Wentz which accounted for all yards accumulated during the drive. Though it took five plays, a previous drive in the game ended with a 51-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to Jackson, further outlining what that role can do for the offense.
Unfortunately for the Eagles’ offense in 2019, it wouldn’t produce another passing touchdown of over 40 yards for the remainder of the season with running back Miles Sanders’ 32-yard pass from Wentz against Minnesota serving as the third longest passing strike of the season.
Tying 2017 back into the discussion, 11 of the Eagles’ touchdown drives required four or fewer plays, with Smith accounting for one of those scores while only being targeted twice on those 11 drives. It should also be noted that shorter touchdown drives can also be circumstantial as turnovers set up shorter fields as well.
Back to the present, the Eagles are still trying to find some consistency in replacing the role Smith left vacant.
On the bright side, it seems improbable Jackson will struggle with injuries the way he did in 2019 but expecting him to play 14-16 games, something he’s only accomplished five times in 12 seasons, isn’t a reliable strategy.
Furthermore, relying on the stable of rookies seems just as promising as relying on Jackson to stay healthy, maybe even less so. Hightower and Watkins aren’t locks to make the roster and without the offseason programs or a preseason to see live action, getting up to game speed could take longer than usual in a league where even the most talented rookie wide receivers rarely play above replacement level.
The acquisition of Smith may have been the most unheralded from 2017, but his role is one the Eagles have had the most difficulty replacing and until they can, shaking their struggles on offense won’t be easy.