Smith broke wide open on a trick play during the Saints’ playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January, and Winston hit him deep down the field for a 56-yard touchdown.
Chances are, they won’t continue to average 56 yards per connection if Winston wins New Orleans' starting quarterback job this season. But that type of big-play opportunity will definitely be there.
“We’ve talked about it a lot,” said Smith, who flashed a big smile when asked if he thinks the passing offense could add more of a vertical element with either Winston or Taysom Hill replacing Drew Brees at quarterback. “Jameis already told me, ‘Listen, when I’ve got the ball, whatever you do, don’t stop running. Because I’m looking forward to stretching the (field) this year. So please don’t stop running on me. Don’t make me look bad if you’re not running.’”
Smith, one of many Saints pass-catchers who has been training regularly with Winston this offseason, said Winston told him, “If your route was a decoy route, now it’s still an option. I’m gonna come backside, and 60, 70 yards down the field I’m gonna throw it.”
It’s fair to be skeptical when projecting a breakout for Smith in his fourth NFL season -- because, well, that breakout is already long overdue.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder has shown flashes of his big-play ability since the Saints drafted him in the third round out of Central Florida in 2018, with 16 career TD catches, including the playoffs. But he has never consistently delivered on his lofty potential, partly because of nagging injuries. He just set career highs last season with 34 catches and 448 yards in 14 games played.
Still, there is ample reason to believe this should be Smith’s best season yet. Not only is he counting on a breakout as he heads into the final year of his contract, but the Saints are counting on it after parting ways with receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill in the offseason.
“I definitely feel like it’s a big opportunity for me, knowing that they didn’t bring in any veterans (in free agency) and didn’t draft a high receiver,” Smith said. “I feel like they expect me to show up this year. And that’s just what I’m gonna do, and I appreciate that.”
Second-year Saints tight end Adam Trautman made similar comments last week, embracing the bigger role he is expected to play in New Orleans' passing game as the projected No. 1 tight end. The Saints could also use breakthrough performances from young receivers Marquez Callaway and Deonte Harris, among others.
But Smith now ranks second behind only Michael Thomas among all Saints receivers and tight ends with 80 career receptions. And he has quietly blossomed into a trusted leader among that bunch.
“He’s a veteran,” Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. said. “And really when you go back and look at the body of work that he’s done and the improvement that he’s made over the last couple of years, we really felt strongly about the way he played for us. We’re real excited about him.
“First of all, he’s a smart player, so you can move him around. You can put him at a couple different spots. He brings a presence to himself in the run game. … And we’ve got to find ways to get the ball in his hands, because he can do some things when the ball is in his hands.”
Smith had to make some adjustments as a rookie, when he was most comfortable as an outside receiver and veteran Ted Ginn Jr. was already established as New Orleans’ primary deep threat. Smith admitted at the time that he struggled to master multiple positions and all of the nuances in New Orleans’ offense.
However, Smith now says he considers his versatility a strength, and he has actually lined up more often in the slot than outside over each of the past two years. He has also emerged as an outstanding blocker, which is a big reason why he played nearly 50 snaps per game last season -- and will continue to be a mainstay in the rotation going forward.
“He does a lot of things well. I see a confident player … he’s physical. You can point to games where you see growth,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who singled out Smith’s performance in a come-from-behind win at Detroit last season when he caught four passes for 54 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith also caught two TD passes in the playoff loss to Tampa Bay.
“He's one of those players that I think details every aspect of playing that position,” Payton said. “He's not afraid to do some of the noisy work, yet he's someone that can stretch the field. And he's in good shape, he’s smart, he's versatile. All of those things you don't take for granted.”