DeVonta Smith can be one of the best receivers we’ve ever seen entering the NFL

DeVonta Smith won the Hesiman Trophy on Tuesday night, making him the first wide receiver to win the award since Desmond Howard in 1991. The Alabama receiver emerged as the favorite to win the award, but there were still doubts whether or not he’d actually take it home, especially considering Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was also a finalist. Now we project Smith to the next level, and dig deeper into why he’s so good.

NFL success and Heisman status don’t often go hand-in-hand. For every Lamar Jackson or Derrick Henry there are slews of players like Johnny Manziel, Troy Smith and Jason White who never made an impact on the league. However, tradition tells us that non-quarterback Heisman winners fair far better when they get to the next level than passers. System can’t hide dramatic deficiencies in a receivers or running backs the way they can a quarterback, which is why out of the last five non-quarterback Heisman, most have played well at the next level, to some degree.

  • Derrick Henry, RB (2019)
  • Mark Ingram Jr, RB (2009)
  • Ron Dayne, RB (1999)
  • Ricky Williams, RB (1998)
  • Charles Woodson, CB (1997)

Of this list only Ron Dayne stands out as being an NFL bust. The rest went on to have successful careers in the NFL. “Successful” isn’t good enough when it comes to a Top 5 pick though, you want someone who can change the game — and Smith can. The prime reason is that he excels in all the ways most receivers fail in the league.

Route running

If a receiver doesn’t make it in the NFL this ends up being the primary reason. There used to be this idea that speed can’t be taught, but route running can — but modern thinking in the NFL is a little different. As the league has become more refined we see that speed only gets you so far, and now all 32 teams have elite athletes on defense that can mitigate quickness.

To make up for this the true test is whether receivers have suddenness. DeVonta Smith is one of the most polished route runners entering the league in a long time. He not only shows quick-twitch quickness to throw off defensive backs, but complete control over his body to fool defenders, while maintaining his composure. Look no further than the first route in the following to see this nuance.

By balancing his speed, Smith fools the defenders into thinking he’s not going deep on this play. Then, with a gentle move inwards it puts both defensive backs into confusion. The cornerback thinks he’s running an in-route, passing off coverage to the safety. The safety thinks he’s breaking back out, believing it’ll go back the corner. The result is him splitting the middle and taking the ball to the house.

Smith also has a great ability to change direction.

Toughness and hunger for the ball

One of the other qualities you see receivers lacking that causes them to fail at the next level is an unwillingness to take big hits, or fight for the ball when it’s in the air. Not only does Smith have the route running to get supreme separation from defensive backs, but when that fails he still fights for the ball, and he’s not afraid to take a big hit.

In this clip we see Smith making a quick cut over the middle. It’s 1st-and-10, a place where a lot of receivers could be forgiven for making a business decision and not play for the ball, only to get blown up by a safety with a head of steam. However, Smith willingly makes the catch, gets hit big time, and still holds onto the ball to pick up valuable yards.

It’s this kind of willingness to fight for the ball that has allowed him to rack up simply ludicrous numbers over last season. Keep in mind he only played 12 games this season:

105 receptions, 1,641 yds, 20 touchdowns.

Oh, he also averaged 24.3 yards per punt return, just for good measure.

Roll Bama Roll explained his greatness succinctly.

“Throw it deep? He’ll out run you. Throw him a screen? He breaks your tackle and then outruns you. Throw it high? He’ll out jump you. Throw it low? He makes a shoe string catch. When he’s open, he’s calling for the ball. And when he’s single covered? He’s still calling for the ball.”

So, what are the knocks on him?

There isn’t much to dislike about Smith’s game, and at best you’re nitpicking to find them. For the speed obsessed he’s probably a touch slower than you would expert from a 175 pound receiver, which also brings concerns whether he has the frame to build on without losing his fluidity.

DeVonta Smith won’t ever be a receiver in the mold of Julio Jones where he’ll easily out-muscle smaller DBs for the ball, but he more than makes up for smarts and skill.

Who does he compare to at the next level?

Personally, I never buy into the idea that elite route runners fail in the NFL. Time and time again we’ve seen speed or size selected over skill, and that always burns the teams dumb enough to make the mistake.

At the highest of his top end we’re looking at a player who could become like Marvin Harrison or Michael Thomas. He won’t always be the fastest player on the field, but his ability and feel for the game will give him something a lot of receivers lack: Longevity. We’re looking at a guy who could play for years and years, and become a staple of the Pro Bowl, provided he gets drafted into a team with the structure to use him.

Even at his floor, I see DeVonta Smith projecting into a Keenan Allen-like player. Considering Allen has posted four 1,000 yards seasons during his seven years (so far) in the NFL, that’s a hell of a floor.

A lot of the talent at receiver in the 2021 class comes down to the idea of “get the ball in their hands, and they’re gone.” Smith is something entirely different. He is a receiver so gifted that he makes bad passes look better than they are, and by extension makes quarterbacks look more talented than they are. Those kind of talents only come along once in a great while at WR, and it’s why I think he’s going to make a huge impact at the next level.

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