One of the more polarizing players for the Buffalo Bills is tight end Lee Smith. And by “polarizing” I mean that I’m probably the only one defending him so it’s really that y’all are polarized away from what I think. To be fair, what I’m defending is a niche role that might not be as far out of whack with the rest of the league as you might think. Is it better to think of Smith as a sixth lineman?
Lee Smith offensive lineman
If you think of him as a tight end his stats are sure to disappoint. Five targets, four catches, 31 yards, and a single touchdown are not great. That means the vast majority of his time on the field is dedicated to blocking.
We’ll better discuss pros and cons below, but the base question is whether or not removing an eligible receiver for blocking provides value. We all know that at its root the answer is: “Yes, sometimes.” Throughout the course of a game, teams sometimes use a sixth lineman for exactly this purpose. To refine the question then, do the Bills use Smith at a similar rate as other teams use a sixth lineman?
How often do teams use a sixth lineman?
I took a look at every team’s regular-season snap counts courtesy of pro-football-reference.com. Sixth-lineman usage is pretty easily calculated by adding up the percentage of snaps of every offensive lineman. Everything over 500% is indicative of an extra lineman on the field as each position on the “normal” line accounts for 100%. Of course there’s a chart.
Buffalo is the only team on this graphic with a tight end included and it’s only Lee Smith’s snaps. It was important to note the Bills’ trend with and without Smith added.
My first takeaway is that Buffalo minus Smith, the Los Angeles Rams and the Minnesota Vikings are all in negative territory. That means they had one or more snaps with four linemen on the field. What that means for Buffalo is that effectively they never use a true sixth lineman. That adds some merit to the idea that it’s not just me who sees Smith as a sixth lineman—the coaching staff may see him this way as well.
If you think of Smith as a sixth lineman the Bills end up with a heavier dose of six lineman (6OL) than any other team in the league. And they’re pretty far ahead of the next two teams on the list.
Lee Smith doesn’t make a true 6OL
You’re absolutely right, heading. Lee Smith is still technically a tight end so it’s not a true 6OL. I’ll call it a 6OL-hybrid. In order to really compare we’d need to look at every team and see if they had a blocking tight end on the roster and adjust accordingly. There wasn’t an easy way to do that. So I didn’t. Luckily we don’t need to dive through the entire league to make a point.
Courtesy of Dan Lavoie, I was able to look at two tight ends generally considered as blocking specialists. Let me introduce Levine Toilolo and Virgil Green.
Levine Toilolo played for the San Francisco 49ers in 2019. He had two targets and caught both for ten yards. He was on the field 17.97% of the time, which elevates them to about 18% of a 6OL-hybrid. If we toss in Garret Celek to the mix (zero targets), the 49ers rise to over 23%.
Virgil Green had 13 targets with nine catches, 78 yards and a touchdown for the Los Angeles Chargers. While that’s more targets than Smith, he also had more snaps. Adding Green to the chart, the Chargers would take the top spot at about 38%.
The short version is this: Not only are other teams using the same model as the Bills when it comes to how they utilize a player like Lee Smith, but they’re effective offenses to boot. If Buffalo isn’t alone then, let’s discuss the reasons you might do this. Or not.
Why 6OL or 6OL-hybrid?
The easy answer is you’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more blocking. There are varying reasons for this and the most common is short-yardage situations where everyone knows a run is coming and you want to push better.
However, looking at the chart above, there are a lot of teams using it at much higher rates than you’d expect for merely short-yardage plays. A good guess for the Pittsburgh Steelers use of 6OL is likely an attempt to protect their backups at quarterback and give them fewer decisions to make. It’s not just the run game where you might want more blocking.
Other teams used 6OL heavily without a backup to protect and proved they can be effective. The Seattle Seahawks had the ninth-best scoring offense in the league with a lot of 6OL. The New Orleans Saints too had a heavy dose of true 6OL play and were third in the league. If we’re talking the hybrid version, the Chargers weren’t much better than the Bills on offense but they were better. And the 49ers were the second-best scoring team in the league.
There could be several reasons a tight end would be preferable. What kind of blocking do you want more of? Move blocking and second-level blocks can work better with a faster player. Tight ends don’t necessarily have to be targeted to be a decoy either. The first time you let a tight end run completely free on a route is the last time a good offensive coordinator won’t make you pay for it.
There’s some valid concerns with going too heavy with 6OL too. Decoys can be effective but defenses don’t exactly have to use their best player against them. That can mean extra pressure on your top targets as the variety of viable options decreases. Teams that aren’t careful can telegraph the play type, which is never a good thing.
A lot of this depends on how well you think Lee Smith blocks. In Buffalo there’s no question he’s their sixth lineman and used heavily in that role. Similarly, there’s no reason to doubt that a 6OL or 6OL-hybrid scheme can be effective. For my money, I think Smith is better than some starting linemen let alone depth but I understand some might disagree.
I’ll add some thoughts on other concerns for the sake of discussion. There’s not a strong argument that Smith telegraphs plays. About 35% of his snaps were passes. Down and distance were likely better indicators of play call. I’ll offer this as well. A blocking tight end doesn’t need to report his change in eligibility like a true lineman. In the latter’s case there’s a literal declaration to the opposing team you have an extra lineman in.
Worried about his penalties? He had eight assessed. Seven came in three games. There were zero after Week 10, for seven games with no flags. The flags didn’t routinely stop drives either. Three touchdowns were after a Lee Smith penalty and several other drives stopped for other reasons. He’s also never had more than five in any other season, making 2019 a bit of a blip.
With the right scheme a tight end playing sixth lineman is certainly not an anchor. If Buffalo has that scheme and if Lee Smith is worthy of the 6OL role are certainly good questions. But the hybrid 6OL position shouldn’t be shunned in the modern NFL.