It's hard to believe at 34 years old he continues to perform at a high level. More importantly he's entering his 13th year in the NFL and still remains as the Panthers top (and some say only decent) wide receiver for the upcoming season.
There are several examples of receivers in the last decade that performed at an exceptional level well into their 30s, and Steve Smith is no exception. Before we take a look at Smith, here are a few players that continued to hit their stride towards the later stage of their career:
- Jerry Rice - at 39 years old he had 1,139 receiving yards
- Randy Moss - partially piggy-backed off of Tom Brady throwing him the ball, Moss holds the single season touchdown record in 2007 at 32 years old.
- Jimmy Smith - the Jaguars receiver had over 1,000 yards receiving in 6 of 7 seasons in his 30s.
At 34 it's pretty easy to argue that another top performance by Steve Smith would put him in some elite company. The trouble with this season, like most others with the Panthers, Smith continues to be the Top (and only) option at receiver. He'll continue to see double-team coverage and soon or later age will catch up, the question is when. Overall he hasn't shown signs of slowing down, but let's take a look at some of his efficiency stats and see where there could be some susceptible to declining production.
Yards per Reception
Smith has held pretty steady in number of receptions the last several seasons. With him being the main option at receiver again this year it would be safe to expect his reception numbers to stay around the same level
Yards After the Catch per Reception
This is the most damning chart of declining production. The most physically gifted and smart receivers find openings in the defense and exploit it after the catch. Smith has almost always been the number 1 receiver so teams are often double teaming him. But the general trend of his YAC per Reception is pretty telling of his ability to make teams pay after he catches the ball.
Percentage of Targets Caught
This statistic measures the percentage of catches a receiver makes versus how many balls were thrown in his direction. We already know Smith will get his fair share of throws, but due to a combination of double coverage and perhaps a slower step, his percentage is clearly in decline mode.
Fantasy Points per Game (in point per reception leagues)
In conclusion, there's a very real chance that Steve Smith will remain a Top 20 receiver again this year. There's no questioning his intangibles of being a competitor and determined athlete who doesn't back down to defenders (or his own teammates). That said, a combination of his age, declining after catch production, and % of targets caught and there is some vulnerability in his statistical trend...especially if Cam Newton can't take another step forward.