DeVonta Smith is inevitable. The senior Alabama receiver has been unstoppable over the last two seasons and has defied expectations to put up big plays and bigger numbers. As we head towards the NFL Draft, Smith will be gunning for the title of top receiver. Even in a talented 2021 class, there’s no reason to bet against him. So far, betting against him has been the stupidest thing you could do.
By the Numbers.
College football has a tendency to insulate players in systems and environments that maximize their skills and allow them to produce. One of the many reasons you can’t simply box score scout at the college level is that there are so many factors that “allow” players to put up impressive numbers. So when you dig down and see a player producing in spite of the factors working against him, you have to take note.
DeVonta Smith has done just that.
Smith lined up next to Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III in 2019. Sharing targets with two players who went top 20 in the 2020 NFL draft would usually hurt a player’s output. Not for Smith! Devonte Smith paced the Crimson Tide in yards (1,256) and touchdowns (14) and was second to Jeudy in catches (68).
To break down these numbers by efficiency: Smith averaged almost 18.5 yards a catch, more than Jeudy and only a bit less than Ruggs. DeVonta Smith also scored on over 20% of his catches, which is not only a great figure but better than his first round counterparts.
Needless to say, Smith was a problem in 2019 despite having to share the ball with Alabama’s other stars.
Fast forward to this year: Ruggs and Jeudy are off to the NFL. COVID shortens the offseason and creates constant obstacles to practicing. Mac Jones is now the quarterback of Alabama. DeVonta Smith, through nine games in 2020, has responded with nothing but dominance.
The only number that has dipped for DeVonta Smith is yards per catch, which is still at a phenomenal 16.3. Other than that, Smith has put up 80 catches, over 1,300 yards and 15 touchdowns. Once again, he has outproduced his 2019 numbers in four less games.
Box scores are only one piece of the puzzle and for some players it is a very small piece. However it is very hard to ignore the way that Smith has sustained elite production despite sharing the ball with other great players and things constantly changing around him.
By the Tape
So what’s it actually like to watch this guy play?
Smith is not an overly imposing looking player at 6’1” and under 190 pounds. He has phenomenal playing speed, but his tested athleticism probably won’t be “on par” with some of his peers in the 2021 class.
The thing is, his game is built around his cerebral feel for the game, his technical prowess and all-around killer instinct.
Smith is a fighter. Here he comes back to the ball and snatches the ball from an incoming defender. Smith’s awareness as a receiver is one of his best traits. He always seems to know where the ball is.
Derek Stingley Jr. probably has nightmares about Devonta Smith.
This play takes a lot of trust between the quarterback and the receiver. The cornerback is defending the vertical and Tua Tagovailoa throws the ball to a spot instead of trying to lead Smith downfield. Smith stops on a dime to get vertical and secure the catch against one of the more talented cornerbacks in the country.
To have a receiver like Smith dominate at the catch point so consistently is a big deal. Quarterbacks can trust him to come down with the ball in low percentage, high payoff situations.
The thing is, as impressive as Smith is as a physical “above the rim” type of player, that is not even his best trait. Yes, his ball skills and awareness are moneymakers, but he is somehow even more impressive when it comes to keeping himself “clean” by creating instant separation.
A lot of the reps shown so far against highly skilled, athletic cornerbacks: Georgia’s Eric Stokes and LSU’s Derek Stingley Junior. Even though they stayed in phase with Smith on a lot of those plays, Smith still won the play. Which is great. However he is usually winning plays much earlier than when the ball actually gets to him.
More often than not for Devonta Smith, he is winning the rep at the line of scrimmage. His release here is so seamless and his acceleration after the first few steps is basically when he guarantees a touchdown.
Here Smith is running a wheel route out of the slot. Once again, his acceleration and footwork help him win this play early. As soon as he cuts up field, you might as well give him six right there.
Smith’s blend of toughness, smarts and technical ability at the line of scrimmage are a large part of the reason he is so productive. Icing on the cake is that he can also make big plays after the catch and Alabama will get the ball to Smith on short passes, shovels and sweeps just to get him in space so he can pick up extra yardage. He has great vision as a runner, can make defenders miss and runs hard, unsurprisingly.
Smith doesn’t have the athleticism of some of the other top receivers in the upcoming draft. Ja’Marr Chase, Rondale Moore and Smith’s teammate Jaylen Waddle will all have better numbers at the NFL combine. However, it is hard to argue any of those players have the pro-readiness of Smith. He will test well, but his numbers can only help his NFL stock unless they are egregiously bad.
Teams will draft Smith because he is dependable, he plays hard and is always looking to make a big play. It’s hard to see him do anything besides making an early, meaningful impact in the NFL as a primary target in an offense.
After all, nothing has stopped him yet.