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New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith (10) makes a touchdown catch against the Carolina Panthers during the second half Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The Saints lost 33-14.

Tre’Quan Smith remembers coming in after training camp and seeing where his name sat on the depth chart.

The Saints rookie wide receiver made plays throughout the summer, often flashing the kind of speed and catching ability that creates excitement during training camp, but he understood why his name was penciled in as a reserve.

Smith knew Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn Jr. and Cam Meredith all should be playing ahead of him. He still had a lot to learn. Then Ginn got hurt, and so did Meredith.

Suddenly, Smith was the No. 2 receiver in an offense devoid of weapons.

“Next thing you know I’m up and Ted’s down and Cam’s having to go through surgery,” Smith said in January. “No one would have known that. I didn’t know that. (Wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson) always told me to be prepared. At an early start, I got a lot of weight put on my shoulders.”

There were times when Smith answered the call. He received his first opportunity in a more significant role against the Washington Redskins. The coaching staff perfectly schemed the game, and the rookie got loose for 111 yards and two touchdowns on three receptions.

But the explosiveness he showed in that game wouldn’t reveal itself again until five games later, when he took advantage of the attention the Philadelphia Eagles paid to Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara by catching 10 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown. Then it was gone again. Smith did not notch more than 30 yards in a single game the rest of the season.

He finished the year with 28 catches for 427 yards with five touchdowns, which isn’t the worst starting point for a rookie player.

The good thing about Smith’s season is that he won on a variety of routes, including slants (one catch, 9 yards), curls (3-20), out routes (9-85), in routes (1-4), posts (2-53), fades (2-40), deep crossing routes (2-27), drags (3-42), go routes (2-97), flats (1-11), beneath passes (1-13) and one broken play (26 yards), according to Sports Info Solutions.

The bad thing about Smith’s season is that he struggled with consistency. While answering a question about fellow wide receiver Keith Kirkwood, coach Sean Payton veered off topic and noted that Smith's production dropped off late in the season and said he needed to start playing better.

“I just got to understand the game more,” Smith said. “Being out there, I know my plays, which allows me to play faster. Once I understand the game fully and see how guys are playing and see what’s my real job instead of just running the route, understand the reason why I’m running the route, and why it’s supposed to be run this way.”

What Smith struggled to understand early in the season is that there are times when his job isn’t to get open. There are times when his job is to help someone else get open, and there might be times on the same call when he could become the primary read based on how the safety plays. Depending on the coverage, he might be asked to run a route two different ways — one to clear out a defender for someone else, and one to get open himself.

So, for instance, if Thomas was running a corner route on the same side of the field as Smith, who was going deep, against a Cover 3 look — two deep corners and a safety in the middle of the field — Smith’s job was to go straight down the field and clear out a cornerback. If the defense had been playing quarters coverage, and the safety came down on Thomas’ corner route, then Smith’s job was to bend behind the safety and turn it into a post route.

Figuring this out was part of the learning process for Smith. And while he got better at understanding the bigger picture throughout the season, he knows there is plenty of work to be done.

“As a rookie, I really didn’t understand that, I thought every play everybody is open,” Smith said. “Coming in here you have certain plays you have to run the route this way. You got to understand that. As a rookie, I want the ball, but I have to understand I’m not the primary read.”

Smith knows there is work to be done this offseason. There are plenty of things he feels he did well this season, but there is also a lot more that could be better. He knows where to focus in this offseason and plans to come back better for his second year.

“It’s all about who wants it more, and then when you do make mistakes, are you willing to go the extra miles to clean up your mistakes and make sure it doesn’t happen again?” Smith said. “It’s all about making improvements, and I’m willing to take the steps to improve.”

The Saints could use additional help at wide receiver. If that comes from those already on the roster stepping up and improving, all the better.


Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.​