Better Than Advertised: Two players proving us wrong

After roughly a quarter of the regular NFL season, let’s look at a couple of players who were vastly underestimated before a ball was thrown in anger. The $72 million that Jacksonville coughed up for Christian Kirk was widely ridiculed as a massive overpayment for an underwhelming choice. Meanwhile, the Seahawks took a lot of flak when they settled for a QB room populated by Drew Lock and Geno Smith rather than filling their Russell-Wilson-shaped hole with a bigger name. But as we’ve seen, Kirk and Smith are making us rethink our initial judgements.

Christian Kirk, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

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Having cashed in their #1 overall draft pick for a franchise quarterback last offseason, it was clear from Trevor Lawrence’s shaky rookie campaign that he needed better offensive weapons around him. Cue the arrival of Arizona Cardinals wideout Christian Kirk in a deal inked literally hours into the legal tampering period.

It wasn’t Kirk’s name than made the deal one of the most questioned of the 2021 offseason. After all, the former second-round pick from Texas A&M was coming off his best year, having snared 77 targets for 982 yards and five TDs. It was more about the money.

Kirk got an absolute bag: $72 million over four years, with $37 million guaranteed – and with incentives, it could reach $84 million. Even for a franchise swimming in cap space, an average annual salary of $18 million was widely considered to be crazy money for a WR2. Kirk has largely played second or even third fiddle to the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, DeAndre Hopkins and AJ Green during his career. Furthermore, he is yet to have 1,000 receiving yards in any of his four seasons as a pro.

You could argue that, given their limited success over the years, Jacksonville needed to pay top dollar to attract talent. They needed someone young enough to develop alongside Lawrence (Kirk is 25). They needed someone with speed and separation (he has both). And they needed someone who’s been relatively healthy (he’s only had a couple of short-term foot and ankle injuries, and missed one game through COVID).

Deebo Samuel, Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams were going to break the bank, and Amari Cooper has a poor injury record. As for the draft, the Jags were selecting #1 and #33, leaving them out of the mid-Round 1 sweet spot for WRs. So of all the viable receivers available to them, Kirk seemed to fit the bill. But even then, the deal seemed like a massive – and expensive – gamble for someone with still so much to prove. 

Yet a month into the regular season, maybe the Jags knew something we didn’t. Sure, General Manager Trent Baalke paid through the nose but so far, it seems that Kirk is holding up his side of the bargain.

Kirk’s season so far:

Week 1 v Commanders: 6 catches, 117 yards
Week 2 v Colts: 6 catches, 78 yards, 2 TDs
Week 3 v Chargers: 6 catches, 72 yards, 1 TD
Week 4 v Eagles: 2 catches, 60 yards

Unlike in the desert, he’s now the No.1 target for a QB that gets the ball out quickly, leading an attack that also features Zay Jones, Marvin Jones, Laviska Shenault and Jamal Agnew. Mainly lining up in the slot, but also popping up out wide and in the backfield, how is he doing?

  • #9 in the NFL with 327 receiving yards from just 20 receptions.
  • #2 in yards per reception at 16.4 (among those with an average of 5+ catches per game), trailing only Jaylen Waddle.
  • Only Tyreek Hill (8) and Justin Jefferson (7) have had more 20-plus-yard receptions than Kirk’s six.
  • His three receiving touchdowns, while tied with a dozen others, is bettered only by Stefon Diggs and Jahan Dotson (4).

The trick now is to keep up the pace for the rest of the year and make sure this isn’t a flash in the pan. Sure, Kirk’s numbers to date might not yet have convinced you that he was worth the investment. But if he maintains this trajectory, a few critics will have to get the cutlery and crockery out, ready to eat a big slice of humble pie.

Geno Smith, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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In contrast to the sniggers that greeted Christian Kirk’s move to the Jaguars, the offseason move with the biggest fanfare was arguably Denver’s acquisition of long-time Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. As part of the blockbuster trade for Dange’Russ, a boatload of picks and players – including QB Drew Lock – went in the other direction.

Lock was widely considered to be a makeweight in the deal so in the weeks after Wilson signed his five-year, $245 million deal with the Broncos, speculation was rife about who would replace him in the Pacific North West. Deshaun? Matty Ice? Jimmy G? Baker? Nope. In the end, Seattle sat tight and let Lock battle it out with their existing QB2, one Eugene Cyril ‘Geno’ Smith III. And against the odds, the 10-year backup won the starting job.

I don’t think it’s a hot take to say that nothing much was expected of Smith who, between 2015 and 2020, made only two starts. In short, the guy hasn’t played a lot of football and Seattle fans braced themselves for a tough season. And although the 2-2 ‘Hawks aren’t exactly setting the world on fire yet, Geno Smith is more than holding his own.

Smith’s season so far:

Week 1 v Broncos: 23 of 28 (82.1%), 195 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Week 2 v 49ers: 24 of 30 (80%), 197 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Week 3 v Falcons: 32 of 44 (72.7%), 325 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Week 4 v Lions: 23 of 30 (76.7%), 320 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT

The 31-year-old put Wilson and the Broncos to the sword in Week 1 and, after a relative dip against the Niners in Week 3, posted a career-best performance this weekend. In Seattle’s wild back-and-forth 48-45 win over the Detroit Lions, Smith completed 23 of 30 for 320 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He added 49 rushing yards and an 8-yard tuddy on the ground for good measure. Seattle racked up 555 total yards and 48 points, and 14 of Smith’s completions went for first downs. And yet, after the game, the man himself played down his efforts: “No, I can play better. I have not exceeded my expectations. I can play a lot better.”

Geno has now made 77.3% of his passes, which is almost 5% better than anyone else in the league. According to ESPN, it’s also the highest completion rate for a QB (with at least 125 attempts) in the opening four games of a season in NFL history!

In addition:

  • Geno’s thrown six TDs (top 10) to just two interceptions (tied 5th)
  • He’s in the top 10 for passing yards (1,037)
  • Smith is tied 6th for completions, ahead of Mahomes, Tua, Jalen Hurts and, importantly, Russell Wilson
  • He is #6 for adjusted QBR (72.2) and has a passer rating of 108.0, which puts him third in the league, behind only Tua and Mahomes
  • His average of 7.9 yards per passing attempt is tied for 4th in the league.

Geno’s form to date has been a very welcome surprise for Seahawks fans, especially when you consider the second-round pick in 2013 had thrown 34 TDs and 36 INTs before this season. It seems Smith has found a more consistent, conservative groove, and is far less volatile than his old self (and indeed, Drew Lock). So I hope they Let Geno Simmer Gently and he puts all his doubters firmly in their place.

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