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Can DeVonta Smith have the greatest Eagles rookie receiving season of all time?

Don’t rule it out!

2021 NFL Draft Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I believe there’s a case to be made DeVonta Smith is the most exciting Philadelphia Eagles draft pick of all time.

Admittedly, I was born in 1991, so it’s not like I’ve lived through the Eagles’ entire 85-year draft history. Accuse me of recency bias if you must.

But I can’t think of an Eagles rookie that people (myself included) were more excited to see play. Carson Wentz obviously belongs near the top of that list but, remember, it wasn’t even a sure thing he was going to see the field in 2016 with Sam Bradford originally set to be the starting quarterback (lol). Fletcher Cox was surely an exciting pick in 2012, but defensive tackle is hardly one of the flashiest positions to watch.

Smith plays one of the most entertaining positions in all of football. A position that hasn’t offered the Eagles fans much reason to be excited in way too long. Just look back at the Eagles’ leading wide receivers in recent history:

2020 - Travis Fulgham - 539 yards
2019 - Alshon Jeffery - 490 yards
2018 - Alshon Jeffery - 843 yards
2017 - Alshon Jeffery - 789 yards
2016 - Jordan Matthews - 804 yards
2015 - Jordan Matthews - 997 yards
2014 - Jeremy Maclin - 1,318 yards

Probably not the best look that the Eagles have gone six seasons without a single 1,000-yard wide receiver (though tight end Zach Ertz went over 1,000 in 2018) in today’s NFL when passing the ball has never been easier. Their top receiver has averaged just 744 yards per season in that span. For perspective, 47 players had more receiving yards than that mark last year.

Smith just might finally be the solution to the Eagles’ wide receiver woes. As we’ve written about at length, he’s a tremendous talent. And there are no foreseeable roadblocks to him being an instant difference-maker for the Eagles. He’s a polished prospect with the versatility to line up at multiple positions.

One might think the Smith hype unfair to him in that we’re setting the bar too high. Maybe. But, one, this article was inspired in part by a themed post series we’re doing at SB Nation centered around the “greatest of all time.” And, two, I find it hard to temper expectations for Smith after all the good things we’ve both seen out of him and heard about him.

So, let’s get wild and allow ourselves to indulge in the hype. Assuming that Smith will be the stud many of us expect him to be in the NFL, what’s the ceiling for him in Year 1? Could he have the best Eagles rookie receiving season of all time?

Here’s a look back at the franchise record for rookie single-season receiving yards (top 20):

2008 - WR DeSean Jackson - 912 yards
2014 - WR Jordan Matthews - 872 yards
1988 - TE Keith Jackson - 866 yards
1973 - TE Charle Young - 854 yards
2009 - WR Jeremy Maclin - 773 yards
1990 - WR Fred Barnett - 721 yards
1990 - WR Calvin Williams - 602 yards
2005 - WR Reggie Brown - 571 yards
1993 - WR Victor Bailey - 545 yards
2019 - RB Miles Sanders - 509 yards
2013 - TE Zach Ertz - 469 yards
2006 - WR Hank Baskett - 464 yards
1985 - RB Herman Hunter - 405 yards
1970 - RB Lee Bouggess - 401 yards
1984 - WR Kenny Jackson - 398 yards
2020 - WR Jalen Reagor - 396 yards
2018 - TE Dallas Goedert - 334 yards
1996 - TE Jason Dunn - 332 yards
1986 - RB Junior Tautalatasi - 325 yards
2003 - TE L.J. Smith - 321 yards

At the very least, it’d be concerning if Smith doesn’t crack the top 10. Especially considering the NFL is adding a 17th regular season game.

If we look to history for a precedent, first-round wide receivers have averaged 75.1 targets, 42.8 receptions, 591.4 receiving yards, and 3.7 touchdowns in the past 10 drafts before this year.

First-round WRs from the last 10 NFL Drafts

PLAYER TARGETS RECS YARDS REC TD
PLAYER TARGETS RECS YARDS REC TD
Henry Ruggs III 43 26 452 2
Jerry Jeudy 113 52 856 3
CeeDee Lamb 111 74 935 5
Jalen Reagor 54 31 396 1
Justin Jefferson 125 88 1400 7
Brandon Aiyuk 96 60 748 5
Marquise Goodwin 71 46 584 7
N'Keal Harry 24 12 105 2
D.J. Moore 82 55 788 2
Calvin Ridley 92 64 821 10
Corey Davis 65 34 375 0
Mike Williams 23 11 95 0
John Ross 2 0 0 0
Corey Coleman 73 33 413 3
Will Fuller 92 47 635 2
Josh Doctson 6 2 66 0
Laquon Treadwell 3 1 15 0
Amari Cooper 130 72 1070 6
Kevin White 36 19 187 0
DeVante Parker 50 26 494 3
Nelson Agholor 44 23 283 1
Breshad Perriman 66 33 499 3
Phillip Dorsett 39 18 225 1
Sammy Watkins 128 65 982 6
Mike Evans 122 68 1051 12
Odell Beckham Jr. 130 91 1305 12
Brandin Cooks 69 53 550 3
Kelvin Benjamin 145 73 1008 9
Tavon Austin 69 40 418 4
DeAndre Hopkins 91 52 802 2
Justin Blackmon 132 64 865 5
Michael Floyd 86 45 562 2
Kendall Wright 104 64 626 4
A.J. Jenkins 1 0 0 0
A.J. Green 115 65 1057 7
Julio Jones 95 54 959 8
Jonathan Baldwin 52 21 254 1
AVERAGE 75.10810811 42.75675676 591.3783784 3.72972973

If you narrow the field down to top 10 picks (since Smith was one), you get 83.4 targets, 44.7 receptions, 641.7 receiving yards, and 4.4 touchdowns.

Top 10 pick WRs from the last 10 NFL Drafts

PLAYER TARGETS RECS YARDS REC TD
PLAYER TARGETS RECS YARDS REC TD
Corey Davis 65 34 375 0
Mike Williams 23 11 95 0
John Ross 2 0 0 0
Amari Cooper 130 72 1070 6
Kevin White 36 19 187 0
Sammy Watkins 128 65 982 6
Mike Evans 122 68 1051 12
Tavon Austin 69 40 418 4
Justin Blackmon 132 64 865 5
A.J. Green 115 65 1057 7
Julio Jones 95 54 959 8
AVERAGE 83.36363636 44.72727273 641.7272727 4.363636364

Thus, a baseline season for a top 10 pick would see Smith finish seventh in the Eagles’ rookie receiving standings. Is there reason to believe he can do better than average?

Absolutely. Again, he shouldn’t lack the opportunity. Smith was a target monster at Alabama and he projects as the Eagles’ best receiving option in Year 1. Who else is going to dominate targets ahead of him? Zach Ertz? He’s coming off a down year and the expectation is that he won’t be here. Dallas Goedert? Maybe, but Jalen Hurts didn’t exactly show a proclivity for really working the middle of the field and force-feeding his tight ends. Jalen Reagor? One should believe it when they see it. Travis Fulgham? He could feasibly be the starting X but it’s hard to know exactly what to make out of him after he fell out of favor last season. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside? I’m going to guess no on this one.

One potential concern I see regarding Smith’s production is the Eagles’ use of the running game. We don’t know exactly what to expect from Nick Sirianni’s offense, but he might rely on Miles Sanders and the running game more often than Doug Pederson did. Hurts could also potentially lead all quarterbacks in rushing attempts this season. Especially if the second-year signal-caller is struggling to excel as a passer.

In any case, it’s very exciting to think about what Smith might be able to accomplish this season. Setting the bar at the Eagles’ rookie receiving record might even be too low after watching how Justin Jefferson (and other rookies not named Jalen Reagor) tore up the league in 2020.

It’s hard to say such an outcome is likely, but when it comes to Smith having one of the greatest rookie seasons in Eagles history, I wouldn’t rule it out.