The Philadelphia Eagles made dreams come true by trading up to No. 10 in the 2021 NFL Draft to select DeVonta Smith. In order to learn even more about him, I reached out to SB Nation’s Alabama blog: Roll Bama Roll. Crimson Tide writer Brent Taylor was kind enough to answer my questions.
1) Can you recap his college career?
Smith came to Alabama as a borderline 5-star prospect out of Louisiana but was generally the third-most talked-about guy, as Jerry Jeudy had all the Twitter video highlights with ankle-breaking route-running while Henry Ruggs was setting all kinds of track records with his ridiculous speed. All three guys played behind Calvin Ridley, and seniors Cam Sims and Robert Foster in 2017, but got significant time in the second half of games as Tua Tagovailoa worked with the second-team offense. Smith had his first real moment in a low-scoring slugfest against Mississippi State, where he caught a slant from Jalen Hurts, broke a tackle, and scored the game-winner on a do-it-or-die drive.
Then a few months later, the entire nation was put on notice when he caught the overtime game-winner on 2nd and 26 in the National Championship against Georgia.
Last But Not Least.... 2nd and 26 for UGA hate Week: pic.twitter.com/kXr3zvW2nu— Barstool Bama National Champions (@BarstoolAlabama) October 16, 2020
(I’ll never pass up an opportunity to link to this play)
With the entire season on the line, Alabama inserted a group of freshmen on offense (Tagovailoa, Smith, Ruggs, Jeudy, Najee Harris, and Alex Leatherwood), and they won it all, officially migrating Alabama from the defensive juggernaut of 2008-2017 to an offensive powerhouse that we’ve seen ever since.
In 2018, Smith quickly became a regular starter, though he split a lot of the catches with Jeudy, Ruggs, freshman Jaylen Waddle, and TE Irv Smith. While he started out the season well, he pulled a hamstring that kept him limited for much of the middle chunk of the schedule, and he fell behind the other pass-catchers in terms of media hype. He came on strong again in the playoffs, but a championship loss to Clemson made it a bit forgettable.
In 2019, Jeudy, Ruggs, and Waddle all returned, but this time, Smitty wasn’t limited with a bum hamstring. He had an 8-catch, 136-yard game in a shootout against South Carolina, and then turned around a torched Ole Miss for a ridiculous 274 yards and 5 touchdowns. While Jeudy and Ruggs continued to get all the NFL Draft hype, Smith just went on and led the team in yards, catches, and touchdowns all season long, including another 200-yard performance against LSU and All-American cornerback, Derek Stingley.
Rather than bolting for the pros as a likely early second-round pick (he had all the production one could ask for as a junior, but lacked the flashy speed of Ruggs or jukes like Jeudy), he returned for a senior season, risking breaking in a new QB for the chance to win another championship. And boy, what a season it was. He actually had a rather quiet first two games (only 14 catches), but racked up 164 yards in a shootout against Ole Miss, another 160 yards against the #1 defense in the country against Georgia, and then strung together a streak of 203, 144, 171, and 231 yards games after Jaylen Waddle was sidelined with a broken ankle. Rather than wilting with extra attention placed on him by opposing defense, Smith just kept getting more and more dominant.
His 231-yard game against LSU featured the highlight 1-handed catch in the back of the endzone over the head of Stingley again, and that performance vaulted him to the forefront of the Heisman conversation. Arkansas went with a unique, 3-high prevent style defense that got them eviscerated by Alabama’s running game, but they at least held Smith to only 22 yards (though he did return a punt for a touchdown). He finished off the season with massive performances in the SEC Championship and both playoff games, won the Heisman, and closed out the career of a legend.
2) What are his strengths?
First off, his speed.
DeVonta Smith is fast. How fast? He once confidently said he could beat Henry Ruggs in a 40-yard race.— Touchdown Alabama (@TDAlabamaMag) January 3, 2021
Ruggs clocked a 4.27 40 at the NFL Combine last year and believed it should have been faster...
( via @Chris_Renkel) pic.twitter.com/likr6AU2de
Ruggs always got all the hype for his speed, but Smith hung in there with him all the time. He’s got great top-end striding speed, but even better, can accelerate to the top speed without wasting a step (a by-product of not having to exert a whole bunch of extra force to speed up a 200-pound frame). He’s a slick route-runner, and that translates to his ability to make guys miss in the open field. He’s light but has never shied away from launching shoulder-first into defenders to get an extra yard or two on every catch. Combine that speed, route-running, and YAC ability, and you can see how he’s made a career of turning routine slants into huge plays.
On top of that, he’s always had phenomenal hands, whether it’s making tough, contested catches or just making the routine ones, and he’s got that natural feel for jumping over and around defenders to pull in catches without ever getting bodied out. When he came to Alabama with Ruggs and Jeudy, the general consensus on each of them was that Ruggs was the speed guy, Jeudy was the route-runner, and Smith had the best hands.
3) What are his weaknesses?
I mean, you’re talking about the first pure receiver to win the Heisman in... 30 years...? There’s really not much to say. I’ve seen a lot about him being a bad run-blocker, but man I’ve seen him spring Waddle and Ruggs free on many wide receiver screens over the years. If anything, I’d say that his YAC ability may not transfer as well in the pros. He’s never really had that ankle-breaking juke ability against a defender right in his grill and is more someone that can just weave through seams between defenders and blockers to pick up huge chunks of yards.
All that said, I will also say that a lot of his production came off of well-designed plays looking to fake screens, fake RPOs, actual RPOs, and significant game-long setups. It’s not like NFL teams can’t do those things, but I also haven’t seen too much evidence that many pro coaches are willing to deviate from their perfectly pre-planned run/pass splits to actually run an offense without putting artificial constraints on themselves. So I guess we could call it a possible weakness that we’ve never really seen him work with a bad QB and bad OC and have to bail them out with pure talent.
4) Are you surprised where he was drafted? Higher or lower than expected? Just right?
How the NFL can take a receiver that didn’t even play in 2020 and another receiver that’s never had a full season of production over the most dominant college receiver since Larry Fitzgerald is beyond me. Smith even played on the same field as both of these guys and was always the best receiver on the field.
Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle are great players and absolutely worthy of being considered top 10 picks, but DeVonta should have been the first non-QB off the board in my opinion. Some teams did the patented NFL GM thing and really overthought things. Just take the best player in the nation already. But, hey, it worked out for Philly, huh?
5) How do you see his NFL career playing out? To what extent do you think the weight concerns are overblown?
I’ll answer your second question first: In 4 seasons of production against SEC competition, Smith has pulled a hamstring once and dislocated a finger once. And I’m sure that being 185 pounds instead of 170 would have prevented those injuries, right? If anything, he’s more flexible and less likely to blow out a knee than some of the 230-pound monsters that run a sub-4.5 forty. Plus with the way rules are slanted towards defenseless receivers these days, it’s not like he’s going to be taking massive hits like the receivers back in 2005. He’s proven again and again he can out-jump and out-position defenders on contested catches, so I can’t imagine adding 15 pounds would make him any better at it either.
As for how I see his career? I’m a bit worried about Philly’s QB situation, to be honest. I’ve seen a whole lot of Jalen Hurts in my career... And that leads to a lot of games with 1 passing touchdown, 2 rushing touchdowns, and 12 punts. Of course, that also led to Calvin Ridley getting like 60% of the receiver production. Hurts really likes his #1 receiver. Especially if they’re on the right side and can run a comeback on the sidelines when he rolls right. I do have high hopes for the Eagles’ new coach though. But ultimately I see Smith as a 10-plus-year solid #1 receiver in the league, with a chance to become a regular All-Pro talent if the situation around him is good enough to support it.
6) Anything to know about him off the field?
He’s a fairly soft-spoken guy but has always displayed a lot of quiet confidence in himself. He’s mostly been a really boring interview, but he did seem to break out of his shell a little bit as a senior. But he’s definitely never been an off-field issue.