With the 10th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles selected one of the most polarizing players in the draft. DeVonta Smith has everything you look for in a top WR prospect: Skill, athleticism, production, and film against top level competition. Despite this, many question if he will be able to handle the physicality of the NFL with his linear frame.
I am here to tell AND show you why the answer to this question is a resounding YES. Not only is he one of the most physically gifted prospects in this draft, he is also one of the most polished and he has the production to match. When you have athletic upside, day 1 skill, and top level production, you have yourself an elite prospect.
Standing at 6’0 tall and a mere 170 pounds you can see why his nickname is “Slim Reaper”. However his weight is the only real concern athletically. He makes up for it with his wide catch radius. His wingspan and arm length doesn’t pop off of the charts, however when you combine that with his leaping ability and his overall body flexibility, you have yourself a player that can reach the football from a variety of different locations and angles. As you can see in the clips below, Smith’s weight didn’t limit him much at the college level. He bounced back from big hits, and showed a lot of effort and strength as a blocker.
He didn’t participate in any of the drills during his Pro Day, but he has a very dynamic set of athletic traits. While not an elite burner he has easy speed to pull away from defenders and threaten vertically. I would guess his true speed would be somewhere in the 4.38-4.45 range. Which is plenty fast enough for an NFL Wide Receiver. Here are some clips to demonstrate his speed and 2nd gear.
We know about his size and speed, but what really makes him stand out as an athlete is his combination of agility, flexibility, and explosion. These 3 traits give him a very high ceiling as a route runner and as a playmaker.
One of Devonta’s best traits is his route running. He has both a high floor and a high ceiling as a route runner due to his advanced understanding of how to run routes as well as his gifted athleticism. The obvious part to his route running is his cutting ability. He is smooth getting in and out of breaks and has very little wasted movement. Not only does he have good footwork he also displays a good understanding of how to use his body to manipulate defenders and sell routes.
But beyond his athleticism he also possesses very high football IQ. Making routes look like blocks, setting up picks, and finding the sweet spots against zone coverage.
But Devonta Smith is more than just a route runner…
Many will call his route running his signature trait. And while I cannot deny that the marriage between his athleticism and his route running may be his most translatable skill set, I must say that his ability to locate, and catch the football is EASILY his best trait.
Smith has a very unorthodox ability to locate and get 2 hands on the football no matter the throw, and no matter the coverage. It goes beyond the simplicity of just catching a football, it’s an art form. Whether the throw is behind him, high over his head, or between him and a defender on the sidelines. He will get 2 hands on it and come down with the football secured more often than not. That is due to his freakish overall flexibility. And he complements that well with an elite ability to track the football and an incredibly high understanding of how to play the position. I compare him to Odell Beckham Jr. in this aspect.
Making spectacular catches is awesome for highlight reels, but it’s not the most important aspect to the position. The ability to provide consistent catches over the middle through contact is way more valuable to an NFL offense. Smith does that at a high level as well. Outside of a well timed punch from Jaycee Horn, I didn’t see many examples of Smith struggling to hold onto tough catches. He has strong hands and fights for the football every play.
The underrated trait that really helps complement his skill set as a pass catcher is his ball tracking. He does a great job of tracking the deep ball, and finding a way to get underneath it without losing speed. We’ve seen first hand how ball tracking can make or break a receiver here in Philadelphia. DeVonta Smith is not going to be a repeat of one of those players.
Last thing I want to touch on about Devonta Smith’s catching is his ability to toe tap the sidelines and make catches on the ground. Because of his incredible flexibility, he is able to make unreal sideline catches. Smith’s ablility to fully extend himself while keeping 2 feet firmly planted on the sidelines is truly impressive. And he has hands made of glue, which allows him to hold onto balls thrown near the ground, and snag them just inches above the dirt.
The most controversial aspect of Smith’s game is his weight. Most people correlate a player’s size with the ability to beat press coverage. However as we’ve seen in the NFL, beating press is more about footwork and explosiveness than it is about size. If you don’t have the footwork and explosiveness required then that’s when having size to power through a good jam comes in to play. Smith clearly has the footwork and explosiveness required to beat press coverage, so he doesn’t need to rely on brute strength as often as other players.
The second part to Smith’s release game is his ability and consistency at coming back for the football. When you’re going up against a top tier press corner you’re going to lose some reps at the line. So it’s important to be able to recover. Smith recovers by remaining focused on his route, and then fighting back to the football. Most of the time he beats the cornerback to the ball and secures the catch. This creates first downs and helps avoid turnovers.
After The Catch
Devonta was dynamic after the catch at Alabama, putting his dynamic explosiveness and suddenness to good use. He plays with very good agility and has an unreal burst that creates natural angle issues for defenders. I view that as both good and bad for his projection to the NFL. I’ll first touch on why I view that as a positive.
Like touched on previously, his natural athleticism creates natural angle issues for defenders. What this does is put defenders in poor positions to get a clean tackle attempt on him which results in slipped tackles. As you can see in these clips, he can be very dangerous in open space.
My big worry however is that he didn’t display an ability to break through solid arm tackles though. He does a fantastic job of breaking ankles in space and forcing poor angles, however against aggressive smart DB’s that took good angles he went down fairly easily. I worry about this because in the NFL defensive backs are going to be faster and smarter, resulting in more challenging 1 on 1’s. The fact that Smith played against the best that college football had to offer really eases my concerns, however I still worry this may become an issue early on. This is one of the rare concerns I have about Smith.
The most popular comparisons for DeVonta Smith up to this point have been Marvin Harrison and Chad Johnson. They are all similar players in that they are very skinny receivers that play bigger than their size and run crisp nuanced routes. While I see nothing wrong with these comparisons and see logical points within these comparisons, I will be going a different direction with my pro comparison.
Odell Beckham. Devonta Smith reminds me a ton of Odell. Despite different body types, I think their athletic profiles and traits are uncanny. Odell is a fantastic route runner, great at the catch point, and a burner after the catch just like Devonta Smith. But the thing that sells me the most on this comp is the ability to win at the catch point. Both have an unreal ability to play above the rim and beat defenders to the ball. The ability to locate the ball, hand strength, and body flexibility allows for a catch radius that stretches far beyond their arm length should allow.
Despite my opinions on Devonta Smith, I think we should remain patient with him. We all saw what happened with Jalen Reagor last year. A combination of injuries and a lack of confidence can really derail a rookie season, and I don’t think we should write him off if he doesn’t have the dream season we envision for him right now.
We have to keep in mind that this isn’t just year 1 for DeVonta Smith, but this is also year 1/year 2 for a lot of other players on this offensive unit as well. Nick Sirianni is a first time head coach, bringing along a new coaching staff. This will be year 2 in Philly for nearly the entire receiving core, and everybody on this offense will be learning a new offense. Growing pains from Smith will be expected, but growing pains from the rest of his teammates, as well as play caller, could likely result in making the growing pains look even worse than they actually are.
I think a realistic benchmark for DeVonta Smith as a rookie would be roughly 70 receptions, 800 yards, and 6 touchdowns. I personally think he will shatter these numbers, as I believe he is day 1 ready and will be this team’s most reliable target the second he steps on the field. But if Jalen Hurts is inconsistent as a passer in year 2, and/or the offense becomes a run first offense to cater around Hurts’ strengths, then I think the original benchmark would be a very realistic and acceptable scenario.
As for what his role will be, I think he will move all over the offense. Nick Sirianni has already talked about wanting versatile WR’s and not penciling them into 1 role, so I expect the entire receiving core to get playing time in numerous different ways. I would expect roughly a 40/40/20 percentage split aligned at X/Z/slot. That will give him time to properly adjust to NFL press coverage while also giving him opportunities to take advantage against softer coverage in the slot and at Z. I am excited to see what Smith will bring to this team and I think you should all be too!