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All-22 analysis: Buffalo Bills tight end Lee Smith

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With Lee Smith taking a four-year hiatus from the Bills to hang out with the Raiders, we take a look at his 2018 season to see what he’s been up to.

The Buffalo Bills continue to tinker with the tight-end position, signing the former Oakland Raider and, uh, Bill, Lee Smith. Drafted by the (BOOOOO) New England Patriots in the 2011 NFL Draft, he was cut before the regular season and picked up by Buffalo. Spending his first four years in the league in Western New York, Smith made a name for himself as a blocking tight end. It was enough to earn a spot in Oakland for the next four seasons. It’s been a while since we saw Smith on the regular, so let’s take a look at his latest work to get reacquainted.


Play 1

Lee Smith has about 50 pounds on Jabrill Peppers so there’s certainly an expectation that he’d have an edge on the safety. Take note, though, that Smith is very nearly behind Peppers when he starts to turn him around and is only holding with his left hand. The right is sandwiching Peppers’s chest, but can’t pull or push as effectively. Smith rotates his body well while maintaining balance and, as a result, completely negates the defender despite Peppers getting the first step or three on Smith.

Play 2

As Smith engages, he’s lower in his stance to take on an opponent more his size. The left hand punches under the shoulder pad, which stalls the attempt to get past him. It’s only after a couple steps that the defender breaks free. Due to the space Smith created he’s able to follow and maintain the block.

Play 3

This shows a few more facets of Smith’s game. The Raiders were confident enough with Smith processing the defense pre-snap that they worked him into the communication channels. The swim move shows where Smith can be limited. When a defender is able to work quickly to Smith’s side, they have a much better chance of getting by him. The success here is in part to Smith’s momentum being harder to change than that of his opponent. Similarly, a quick sidestep sometimes did the trick against Smith. He’s not exactly a liability in these situations, but when he’s beat it’s usually the reason why.

Play 4

When move-blocking, a lot depends on how the contact is initiated. A well-timed move like this one allows Smith to square up and latch onto his opponent. If that happens, Smith is a pretty safe bet.

Play 5

Smith’s hand-fighting is pretty refined at this point. Going toe-to-toe (finger-to-finger?) with Matt Judon, Smith slows the pass rush considerably using successful counters. Smith maintains a low stance, which helps slow Judon down as he reaches in to try and shove Smith back.

Play 6

Let’s take a look at Smith’s pass-catching abilities. The hands catch is pointed out because Smith has sound fundamentals that result in a steady presence when the ball comes his way. An 85% catch rate over his eight years in the leagues is pretty great. Once the ball is in his hands he’s quickly corralled. The data lovers probably are already mentally preparing to respond with how low of a sample size Smith has when it comes to receptions—and that’s valid. Smith has only 56 catches. He’s been targeted 66 times and coincidentally has started 66 games for a clean one target-per-game-started figure. He’s appeared in 107 games though, meaning he sees less than one target per game.

Play 7

If I told you that this was the same play as above but from a different angle, you’d probably believe it if it weren’t for the huge difference in how he’s tackled. One of the reasons Smith’s number isn’t called all that often in the passing game is that he doesn’t have a well-developed route tree. His breakaway speed isn’t fantastic and he’s not about to juke someone out of their shoes. A lot of his catches seem to work primarily because no one treats him like a receiver.

Play 8

Here’s what happens when someone treats him like a receiver. With four targets in this game, the unusually high amount of non-blocking work for Smith convinced the Cleveland Browns to pay attention to him. Jamie Collins has no problem keeping up with Smith and forcing an incompletion. As a positive takeaway, this was the only incompletion for Smith the entire year.

Play 9

It’s a different route but not really all that different. This 30-yard catch is the longest of Smith’s career. As the graphic notes, this single catch amassed more yardage than three separate seasons for Smith.


Summary

Fifth-round draft picks don’t stick around for eight years or more unless they’re good at something. Lee Smith is good at blocking. Really good. So good that he’s essentially an extension of the offensive line. A team could use him more in the passing game and there’s no reason he couldn’t increase his output. Used sporadically, defenses can be caught by surprise by Smith, and there’s room for more than 13 such attempts in a season (Smith’s highest target volume). Counterpoint: There’s not much to suggest he’ll ever be a major weapon.

If I were to guess the plan based on the Smith signing I’d point out that younger quarterbacks can be helped with more time upright and less decisions to juggle. It’s true that Smith being on the field telegraphs “block” consistently. It’s also true that said block will probably be an effective one. Paired with a line to match, Josh Allen should have extra time to consider the other four receiving options thanks to Smith.