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TE Kaden Smith: The Good, the Great and the Ugly

Kaden Smith is entering his third season with the Giants but is far from being assured a roster spot. Nick Falato takes a look at where Smith is in his development.

Kaden Smith was a sixth-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers in 2019--a team that at the time was loaded at the tight end position.

Smith failed to crack the final 53-man-roster; when John Lynch, the 49ers general manager, attempted to stash him on their practice squad, Dave Gettleman and the New York Giants decided to claim him off waivers.

Fast forward two seasons, and Smith has shown a lot of development as a blocker while flashing receiving skills when asked, which was mainly when Evan Engram was injured at the end of 2019.

Smith is a well-rounded player that is solid all around. He’s not a no. 1 tight end, but he is still important to Jason Garrett’s offense.

Smith was the lead pulling blocker from the H-Back position on the Giants base counter trey play; this is a different type of block than base blocks on the line of scrimmage, yet he could succeed in this department.

The Giants added Cullen Gillaspia in free agency from the Texans, and he could compete with Smith for this role.

Luckily for Smith, Garrett loves tight ends and heavier personnel packages. In my estimation, Smith is a better, more versatile blocker than Evan Engram, and he’s more effective than Levine Toilolo.

I wouldn’t say Smith's roster spot is a given, but he should be on the final roster with Kyle Rudolph’s injury to consider.

I, personally, would be very disappointed if the Giants had to let a tight end go, and they decided to let Smith walk instead of Toilolo, but I don’t envision that happening.

Smith played 453 offensive snaps last season to Toilolo’s 276. Smith wasn’t used as often in a receiving role in Garrett’s offense, as opposed to Shurmur’s unit, but he had 18 catches for 112 yards on 21 targets.

With Shurmur as the play-caller and an injury to Engram, Smith amassed 31 catches on 41 targets for 268 yards and three touchdowns.

Let’s see why I’m so high on Smith in this edition of the Good, the Great, and the Ugly.

Note: Kaden Smith is No. 82. Many of these clips will be from 2019 because, as I have alluded to, he had many more opportunities that season.

The Good: Receiving Skills

Smith is capable as a receiver, his lack of involvement is not due to an insufficiency in skill-set.

Here we get to see Eli Manning locate Kaden Smith, who just broke away from the linebacker up the seam. Smith high-points the ball with soft hands in between three defenders.

Watch how tight he grasps the ball to his body once he secures it. He’s aware of the possibility of a safety blowing him up and forcing a drop, but Smith shows the processing to mitigate the risk.

This is a really good route combination by Shurmur here that draws the cornerback outside to the flat while creating a void that Smith exploits off the line of scrimmage.

The quick hitch from the outside also holds the linebackers in place. Smith jumps up, high points the ball, and comes down for a score.

He also catches the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime, leading to the Giants picking fourth and not second in the 2020 NFL Draft. Here’s that play below.

Smith defeats the tight press alignment and wins inside; I love how easily he tracks the bullet into his hands from Daniel Jones. He catches it for the win in a high leverage situation. Smith had six catches for 35 yards and two touchdowns in that week 16 victory over Washington.

Playing in these types of elements is difficult, but Smith still shows the ability to use his soft hands and extend them away from his frame for tough catches through contact. He is completely exposed, with no feet on the ground; he takes a big hit from the safety but holds onto the football.

Also, look at Smith's route; he runs a subtle out and up behind the hook zone defender. The deep horizontal cross held the safety in place just long enough to allow Smith to break open into space. Smith takes the big hit well, and it’s a great sight to see from a young player.

This play is from 2020; he catches a simple flat route and then makes a man miss before finishing strong through a defensive back’s tackling attempt.

Smith isn’t the most elusive tight end with the football in his hands, but he has enough athletic ability to make a man miss here or there while showing the toughness to run through defenders. The video above cuts off right before he falls to the deck and picks up an extra yard or two.

RELATED: Evan Engram, Kaden Smith to Attend Tight End University This Summer

The Great: Blocking Improvement

I wrote last year for Giants’ Country about Smith flashing as a blocker--he developed and got a lot better from 2019 till 2020. He was a pivotal part of the counter trey runs. He base-blocked, blocked down, double-teamed/climbed adequately, and was very good while sealing the EDGE.

Here’s the counter play I have referred to; Smith is the lead blocker while the backside guard kicks out the unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOLOS).


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Watch how Smith locates the most dangerous man or the first guy he sees in the alley and just delivers a solid hit to stop him in his tracks. The block doesn’t allow Jon Bostic (53) to fill his fit, and it enables Wayne Gallman (22) to pick up extra yards.

A defensive back attempts to fill here, and Smith just annihilates him while pulling from the backside H-Back position on the same type of run from a slightly different offensive formation.

Kamren Curl (31) tries to play the STAR position, but it doesn’t go well for him when Smith locates the young defensive back with momentum.

Curl’s run assignment isn’t executed because of Smith’s efforts, and the run is sprung by Alfred Morris (41), which results in a good Giants gain.

Smith seals the EDGE well here against Ryan Kerrigan, who is not known for his run defense. Kerrigan is directly over the top of the outside tight end, which is Smith, and the tight end needs to engage the midline of Kerrigan while flowing laterally and cutting off the veteran defender’s angle.

While engaged, Smith needs to ensure that Kerrigan can’t separate from the block, so Smith gets his hands underneath the armpits of Kerrigan, anchors down, uses a good angle, and holds the point of attack long enough for the pullers to clear and Morris to get to the edge. He executes these types of assignments well, showing good lower body strength.

Framing blocks against adjusting defenders is difficult, but Smith can do just that against K.J. Wright (50), who moves to an outside shade right before the snap.

Smith steps to the play side, gets one hand in the midline and another outside while flowing towards the play and cutting the angle of Wright off from Gallman.

Smith fights through the block and finally flips his hips, and completely seals Wright away from his responsibilities. A superior effort and win for Smith.

Here are some blocks of Smith taking advantage of inside crashing defenders; he blocks down well and clears a path to the outside, allowing the other two tight ends, who are outside of Smith, to block their players down the line of Smith scrimmage.

Smith takes Jordyn Brooks (56) on well here, off a quick transition, mind you. If Smith didn’t get to Brooks, then the minimal gain may have been a loss.

Smith buries an inside shade here on a down block. He just drives through the player and uses sheer strength and positioning to dominate the play and earn a pancake.

In one-on-one situations, these types of blocks are excellent to see from a tight end developing as a blocker.

This base blocking situation isn’t great technique, but I love to see how Smith overcame some unfortunate mid-rep developments to still win. Smith is paired with Toilolo on the block, and the latter ends up on the ground, which is no surprise to anyone who watches the Giants.

Smith initially gets overpowered by Alton Robinson (98), but the second-year tight end shows recovering ability by keeping his outside arm on the shoulder pad of Robinson while quickly reestablishing his feet and limiting the space between himself and Robinson. 

Despite losing technically, Smith doesn’t allow the young EDGE player to win the rep and fulfill his responsibility.

Smith can be a bit better at locating defenders at the second level. It’s not an easy assignment, so I don’t want to say this is "ugly" from him, especially when he does have plays like the one on tape against the Super Bowl champions.

Smith just assists Andrew Thomas (78) with the block and then climbs to the linebacker and uses good technique not to disengage. Smith has shown several strides while blocking, and further development may happen with the addition of Rob Sale, which would be lovely for a player heading into his third season.


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The Ugly: Athletic Upside

Smith will never be a great athlete at tight end, but I don’t feel like he has to be that to have a significant role in the NFL--that was on display this season in Garrett’s system. Smith has enough athletic ability to get open, especially with his processing ability and understanding of coverages.

The only athletic testing that is above 50th percentile is his 3-cone, which is advantageous when running routes. However, he doesn’t have the desired speed or explosiveness to really make a difference as a pass catcher.

I don’t believe he has to have those things to make a difference in 2021. If Smith were a better athlete, we would be talking about a much more well-rounded tight end with more upside, but he doesn’t.

He should still be important to this offense if he can retain his responsibilities as the H-Back, pulling player, on certain power/gap concepts. He’s also more than capable, as we’ve seen, as a receiver with solid route running and as a blocker in various roles. I look forward to his development this season.