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Does Kaden Smith have a future with the Giants?

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Let’s take a look at the play of the rookie tight end

Green Bay Packers v New York Giants Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers marked the eighth straight defeat of this spiraling season for the New York Giants. Many questions surround the future of the team and the direction of the leadership, while uncovering positives has seemingly become more difficult.

The byproduct of the team’s struggles happens to be valuable experience gained by the young players on this roster. It’s difficult to know how many of these young players will stick around, but some of these younger players have taken advantage of their opportunities. One of those young players, rookie tight end Kaden Smith, showed intriguing flashes this Sunday with Rhett Ellison and Evan Engram out.

Smith, a sixth-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers, comes from “Tight End U” (Stanford) where he had 70 receptions, for 1,049 yards, and 7 touchdowns in 20 games through two seasons with the Cardinal. He’s 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, and he earned second-team All-Pac 12 Honors in 2018, while also being named as a finalist for the Mackey Award in his junior season. The Giants claimed Smith off waivers on Sept. 16. Smith finished Sunday with six receptions on eight targets for 70 yards, which are respectable numbers.

I remember thinking coming out of the draft that Smith he could be a solid Y type of tight end who could have value in the red zone, due to his ability to leap and high point the ball while showing strong hands at the catch point. Smith displayed this several times in his collegiate career, but slid to the sixth round after an underwhelming Combine.

Smith’s quickness in and out of breaks was marginal, and he didn’t seem to possess a lot of ability to plant and explode inside, despite being third in the draft class among tight ends in the 3-cone drill, which largely measures agility.

You can see in these two clips (small sample size) what he does at the top of each of these routes. He relies on his strength, rather than any sort of route running savvy or athletic ability, to create separation from whoever is covering him. He engages at the top of the route, aggressively pushes off, and then turns inside. The routes aren’t necessarily sharp, which can lead to predictability. When these athletic questions arise, teams look to the Combine to see if there’s anything that may allude to disproving athletic questions. His 4.92 40-yard dash, which tested in the 19th percentile at the position did not help this fact, did not do that, so he slid down draft boards and landed with a team that is loaded at tight end. I believe it’s encouraging that the 49ers brass John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan saw something in Smith, although he didn’t make the final roster. I mentioned Smith’s ability to high point balls and utilize his big frame to box out, and he did this a lot for the Cardinal while showing that high football IQ to find soft spots in zones, especially up the seam and in the red zone.

Here you see Smith release from the inline position, avoid the linebacker, find the seam and the soft spot between the linebacker and the safety, and then use his body as a shield to catch the ball that was thrown to his outside shoulder. He displays good concentration, excellent ability to high point, and really strong hands to hold onto the ball through contact. These are all intriguing aspects of his game that he displayed against Green Bay, which begs the question ... Can Kaden Smith be a No. 2 tight end for the Giants, and can Smith help the Giants move on from Ellison and his $7.19 million dollar cap number in 2020?

Receiving

Any receiver must be able to catch in traffic, and, even more importantly, catch the ball through contact, which Smith on Sunday showed the ability to do.

Smith is in the two-point stance to the boundary, very close to the line of scrimmage. It’s a post from the outside receiver with Smith running an out and up, but the real point of the play concept is to sell the out route (or outside hitch) and allow Jaire Alexander (23) to follow the post towards the middle of the field. With Alexander following the post, and the safety in the middle of the field looking at the post underneath, the deep outside portion of the field is vacated and Oren Burks (42) cannot recover from the initial double move of Smith. This is a well timed, smooth, route by Smith to ensure that he sneaks out into the open. It’s subtle, and he takes a huge shot right after he secures the catch. The best part is that he held onto the ball through contact while jumping to make the grab. Very solid play and a gain of 32 yards.

Above are two clips that are just designed plays to the rookie tight end, and plays that are utilized by Engram when he’s healthy, which shows there is trust in the young tight end. Fairly innocuous-looking plays, but I feel both show Smith’s ability to utilize timing well, especially the screen. It’s just a slip screen to the tight end, you see how Smith engages Rashan Gary (52) up the arc and allows for him to gain the outside before he instantly turns around for the ball, showing good timing. If Smith let Gary go too early, then Gary would have read the tight end screen. If he waited too long, he would have gotten Jones killed by Gary.

We saw Engram run this play earlier in the year and it was sniffed out (by a more experienced defender), but mostly because Engram gave the pass rusher a strong shove up the arc, which is the telltale sign of a screen pass to that side. Smith was subtle about allowing Gary up the arc and then Smith shows some ability to gain yards after catch with his legs, although he’s not winning any 100-yard dashes anytime soon. The second clip showed his ability to separate on a drag route underneath from the inline position. Smith is the outside tight end and the inside tight end helps create traffic in man coverage against Smith’s assignment, while the field side receivers ran routes that cleared out the underneath portion of the field for the drag. Smith’s outside step at the line of scrimmage helped freeze his assignment and is one of the nuances that allowed him to acquire even more inside leverage than he already had. Smith showed enough to create separation against someone who was in a disadvantageous position for that play call.

The play above is a simple out route by Smith, who is inline to the boundary, but I felt he showed some suddenness in this break, more so than I saw in college. Smith looks smooth planting off his inside foot and utilizing his body to secure the catch before he is hit by the corner coming in from the other side. He gets open, looks smooth doing it on this play, and holds on through contact.

Blocking

The blocking phase of playing tight end is more important than the receiving end, especially on an offense that wants to establish the run. I saw some struggles in this phase for Smith against the Bears, but looking back on the film, the struggles were 1-on-1 matchups with Khalil Mack or Leonard Floyd on mostly backside plays, so it’s hard to knock a rookie tight end for these types of struggles. Smith held up well against his two Smith brothers Preston Smith (91) and Za’Darius Smith (55).

Here’s Smith motioned back into the right side of the screen, due to a 3T demanding Zeitler and Remmers’ attention, which forces Kaden Smith to be 1-on-1 against Preston Smith. It’s a shotgun run with Barkley offset to the weak-side. Kaden Smith does a very good job positioning himself in the 6 hole (C-Gap) on this power concept with Hernandez lead blocking. This is a difficult block for the tight end to make, and Preston Smith does a good job reaching out and assisting Jaire Alexander on the tackle, but Kaden Smith held up well on an island. If it weren’t for Ibraheim Campbell (35) shooting the C-Gap and forcing Barkley to juke towards the block, then Preston Smith wouldn’t have had any sort of chance to get his hands on the running back.

Here’s another matchup with Preston Smith, and Kaden Smith is now on the opposite side of the formation; the snap happens and Barkley’s landmark looked to be the inside leg of Will Hernandez. But in typical Giants fashion, there was absolutely no running room inside, so Barkley had to bounce it outside. Preston Smith shoots the C-Gap here and Kaden Smith does a good job adjusting to Barkley’s run throughout the play. He continues to shuffle his feet, while maintaining a low center of gravity, against a stronger player. Kaden Smith uses good positioning and an aggressive ability to readjust when he is being knocked off-kilter. Another solid rep against a good player for the young tight end.

Another rep where Kaden Smith positions himself well, despite being out-muscled with punches at the point of attack. This rep comes against Za’Darius Smith and Kaden Smith gets low and establishes inside hand placement before Za’Darius Smith uses a strong outside hand punch to throw the balance of Kaden Smith off. What I love to see is the ability to fight through this kind of contact in the rushing phase of the game. Kaden Smith fights through and uses Za’darius Smith’s outside punch against him by gaining that outside shoulder with his outside hand and forcing Za’darius to spin backward and off the block, which allowed Barkley to bounce it outside. These reps aren’t picture-perfect, but they’re effective and they’re not drawing penalties, which is incredibly valuable. Kaden Smith is outweighed by about 20 pounds and is going against two very good NFL players in these clips, and he holds up at a solid level.

Final thoughts

Kaden Smith was called upon this Sunday and he picked up the phone. He shows an ability to hold up at the point of attack against stronger players while showing adaptability, awareness, and positioning skills in the blocking phase of the game. Smith also displays subtleties with his route running, strong hands, and an ability to high point balls into his above-average frame. These next few games should be important when evaluating Smith and his potential standing with the Giants. I feel he can be a legitimate replacement for Rhett Ellison if the Giants decide to cut bait. Smith’s upside is certainly capped by his athletic ability, but his size and smarts are very valuable. If he continues to progress with the trajectory that he’s on, he can be a number two option at tight end moving forward for the Giants, while possibly saving some money on the cap for the Giants 2020 roster.