Devonta Smith – Transitioning From College to the NFL

Devonta Smith turned heads during his insane senior season amassing over 1800 yards with 23 touchdowns, capping off the season with a National Championship and the 2020 Heisman Trophy. After being selected 10th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles, analysts were quick to return to the prior story about Smith’s physical characteristics holding him back from being able to compete against NFL defenses. How much truth is actually in these assumptions even before Smith has played an NFL snap? Today, we’ll be looking at Smith’s history in the Crimson Tide, as well as his playstyle, how his physical stature will actually hold up in a real game, and finally, his future in the NFL.

Smith had a slow start in his first 2 seasons, only posting up over 800 yards in total. However, his future looked promising when he caught the game-winning touchdown over Georgia during overtime as a true freshman. Having a silent year in 2018, the next season would let everyone know about the name of Devonta Smith. Having over 1200 yards in 2019, analysts were surprised when Smith decided to not declare for the NFL Draft. His teammates, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy, would then go on to become first-round picks in the same draft. 

After his return in the 2020 season, Smith would go on to have one of the greatest seasons by a College receiver. Through 117 receptions, Smith would average 15.9 yards, which is an insane statistic even for a college system. Through many of his games, Smith would display great route running ability, somehow always looking like he’s wide open, and great catching radius as well. On top of this, Smith would set single-game records and career records with the Crimson Tide. Regardless of all of this, why did it seem like draft experts still doubted Smith after putting up monster numbers? Simple answer, physicality.

The drafting scouts for many teams are now always on the lookout to see who’s the best fit for the league and for the team. The question is always simple, “Could they do even half of this in the NFL with bigger people and bigger responsibilities?”. More often than not, the factor that solves this problem is the physical nature of a player. The physical factor of a player is harder to change than the playstyle or mechanics of a player. Jaylen Waddle’s three-year career at Alabama had him combined for a total of 1999 yards, yet he was drafted sixth overall. Given that Waddle was injured for his last season at Alabama, I wouldn’t hold this against him. However, by watching Waddle’s tape, you can tell that the Dolphins liked a lot of his physical metrics and game speed to draft him as the sixth-pick.

From the tape I’ve watched on Smith, his strengths lie in his route-running ability, his in-game IQ, and great hands. Depending on the coverage, Smith has the ability to find an open spot in zone-coverage, and has the ability to give his quarterback a good throw versus man-coverage. Smith has one of the smoothest route-running abilities I’ve seen, and has a diverse route-tree. He won’t burn you with speed, but his release off the line will turn those defensive backs into a loop. His critics say that his size will play a factor, he’ll get bullied by bigger cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage, and he doesn’t have the mass to take hits and get back up. While I agree with some of the things on that list, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith is a bust; I just believe that it’ll take some time to develop into the Eagles playbook and play to his strengths against NFL-talent.

Smith’s size has never been an issue in the College football scene. That’s because of two reasons. Being a cornerback is one of the hardest, if not the hardest position, in football. In College, only a handful of corners develop to become top-tier corners in the NFL. Corners in College will be nothing compared to the corners in the NFL. Second, Smith never really had to deal with press coverage in College. His unique movement off the line made DBs scared to jam him in fear of getting beat with his speed. It’s better to take the chance playing an off-man coverage or missing a crucial jam at the line, and Smith getting completely free.

Another problem with Smith (much like for every position transition) is the NFL-level talent. Can Smith play a whole game with soft-zone coverage and take the hits from the onslaught of linebackers and safeties who run 4.4s? It’s not whether or not he can take a hit, but could he do it consistently? In Smith’s defense, his College playstyle didn’t rely on him taking 50/50 balls. Rather, he would completely beat the defense and leave an open throw for his quarterback. Many of his touchdown receptions barely had him touched, but will we see this in the NFL? We won’t completely know. Smith is a unique player coming out of college and regardless of how much we analyze him, we can only know so much about a player until he steps foot on the field.

Everyone coming out of the Draft always says, “I play with a chip on my shoulder this, face adversity that”, but regardless of whether you’re drafted in the first round or the sixth, it’s all the same when the lights come on. Yes, you can make the argument that first-rounders might get more practice reps than later-round players, but if you can ball, you will ball. Devonta Smith has a lot of smoke surrounding him coming into this next season. Regardless of what any analysts say, he should just do what he does best and play football. I personally believe he has a bright future in this league and we’ll see his first season of many this next season.

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