When Lee Smith was signed by the Buffalo Bills he replaced free-agent signing Jake Fisher. Fisher, signed as a tight end, had spent the last few years with the Cincinnati Bengals as a tackle. The message Buffalo was sending loud and clear was that they wanted a tight end who could block. This philosophy has drawn criticism toward the Buffalo Bills as this has also meant having a role for a tight end with questionable receiving abilities.
When Smith is in the game it allows the defense to key in on the other four players. If we’re piling on, you could argue that Smith is a “waste” of a roster spot as the Bills could simply put another lineman out there. Lee Smith’s penalty-hat-trick this Sunday didn’t help matters. We turn to the coaches’ film to ask the age-old question of “What’s the deal?”
Let’s just address the elephant in the room right away. Lee Smith is not the best receiving option in the NFL. Maybe not even second best. Smith gets a step on the defense but you’d have a hard time convincing me it wasn’t because they just sorta forgot about him. Five seconds is a loooooong time for a 15-yard reception, even if it is a crossing route.
The above isn’t to suggest Smith can’t be a receiver. Here he demonstrates why tight ends can be so dangerous. You’ll have a hard time disrupting the timing of a small tank once it’s in motion. Aside from the questionable grab that’s pretty good defense with the defender getting back into position and attacking Smith’s right arm. It doesn’t make a difference though. Smith’s reach is too great and he plucks the ball out of the air.
We’re not quite done with him as a possible receiver, but let’s take a quick detour to Smith the blocker. This is a good one to just soak in, so I won’t do a lengthy breakdown. What I will say is that if it weren’t for Smith that side of the line is in real trouble. This is also a really good snapshot of the difference in blocking between Smith and the rest of the tight end group.
Even though I suggested Smith isn’t the fastest player on the field, he’s still faster than many lineman pulling. He maintains his body between the lane he wants to keep open and his opponent, even holding the block for a short time with only one hand.
Here’s our last discussion on Smith the receiver. The Bills don’t seem to like asking Smith to run routes all that often and indeed there’s a case to be made for the “why not an extra lineman” question. On the rare occasion Smith slips out, he’s routinely ignored. As a result of this and Smith’s solid catching ability, he’s actually a pretty sneaky wrinkle and could come in handy. At 6’6” ad 265 lbs it’s pretty wild how well he can hide. So far so good but let’s face it, does what we’ve seen so far explain why he’s on the field 47% of the time?
I’m guessing you’ve heard of Geno Atkins before. He’s not the kind of player you typically deliberately scheme to go head-to-head with your tight end without help from a lineman. Yet here we are. And if it weren’t for Shawn Williams getting a step or three ahead of a pulling Cody Ford, Josh Allen is off to the races.
Michael Bennett is another name you might have heard before. Just like above, the Bills are asking Lee Smith to neutralize one of the best players on the other side of the ball. And just like above Smith does exactly that.
Smith is strong enough to handle the bigger guys, so let’s see how he picks on someone smaller than himself. Once again asked to neutralize one of the best players across from him, Smith uses a different skill set and, as we keep seeing, gets the job done. Even what looks to be a “loss” is in reality a kudos to Smith. At the end of the play Kyle Van Noy slips around and nearly gets to Josh Allen. Smith directs Van Noy back exactly where he should be. If it weren’t for quick pressure up the middle, legend has it that Allen would still be running today.
The timing and follow through on this block are impeccable. I could go on, but the clip speaks for itself.
I’ve often been in a position to contemplate and discuss the concept of “objectivity.” Ultimately, I’ve come to define objectivity not as a lack of bias but rather a willingness to be proven wrong when the evidence rolls in. With that definition in mind, I admit I had to be very objective about Lee Smith.
For anyone looking for my 5 cents on Lee Smith, sometimes you can be right but way off the mark. Smith is pretty much “only” a blocking tight end. For my part I underestimated just how effective he is at it. Why not add an extra lineman if you’re telegraphing the play? Because Lee Smith is better than the majority of depth linemen. You can count on him to neutralize players you’d hesitate to leave some starters alone against—on either side of the formation. And if he manages to catch a ball or two, all the better.