With the 2021 season behind us, all eyes turn towards free agency and the upcoming NFL Draft. Before we excite ourselves with the talent that could potentially find its way to Philadelphia, it’s time to take a look back at the progression of what was ultimately an eye-popping rookie class.
There’s no better place to start than with DeVonta Smith, who was drafted with the 10th overall pick after the Eagles opted to trade with the Miami Dolphins. Jaylen Waddle ended up on the Phins, and Smith reunited with former teammate Jalen Hurts.
He joined the team as one of the most decorated receivers in NCAA history. The Heisman-winning wideout brought a ridiculous ability to the table, but concerns over his durability didn’t take long to surface thanks to his lean frame.
The big questions for Smith going into his rookie year were simple. Could he hang? And if he could, just how well does that rare skillset that decimated corners at college translate to the NFL? The answers were blunt. Yes, and better than anyone could’ve expected.
The Eagles found themselves a true #1 wideout in DeVonta Smith. He ended his rookie year by breaking DeSean Jackson’s franchise rookie record for receiving yards, amassing 916 on 64 receptions, scoring 5 touchdowns in the process. Among NFL rookie wideouts, he ranked third in receiving yards. As the third wideout drafted that year, it’s safe to say that’s right in line with expectations…
In all honesty, those numbers should’ve been even more impressive. Jalen Hurts left a lot of meat on the bone this past year and that isn’t a jab. His ability to deliver accurate deep balls was sporadic, his touch on them even more so, and he often underthrew targets, leaving his wideouts to do all the work and somehow adjust to make a blinding catch. The good news is that Smith did a remarkable job in masking many of his flaws.
Not only did he breeze past some very respected cornerbacks, but flashed a stunning level of physicality. Smith would often be found contributing to key blocks in the run-game and was able to box out defenders on a consistent basis. He shielded the ball well when in jump-ball situations and was able to shed tackles that many would assume he’d be unable to. If that’s the floor, then his ceiling is scary high.
It’s so easy to forget that Smith is a rookie when watching him play. He doesn’t carry himself like a typical ‘diva’ that has often been associated with the position, and that’s a credit to Nick Saban and his style of coaching at Alabama.
The level of hunger and composure both exhibited by Smith will only further snowball his development. As he goes into his second year, the matchups are going to get tougher as teams key in on how to try and slow one of the only release valves in this offense down, so it’s crucial that Smith continues to hone in his craft. There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll take that next step…but he can only do so much.
What does 2022 hold?
Hopefully, a lot more success…but he needs help. Whether that’s in the form of a shiny new receiver opposite, or a playbook that actually unlocks his skillset, Smith can’t do it all by himself.
He spent most of his time running comeback routes and out routes in 2021, which is fine…but we’re talking about a playmaker who can cause chaos at all three levels. There was a worrying lack of screens and deep post concepts that utilized Smith. Instead, the screens were given to Reagor and the bombs to Watkins, despite Smith having a very strong track record in these areas at Alabama, leading the team in those categories in his final year there.
If nothing changes, Smith is going to just be held by off-coverage looks while defenses seek to limit curl concepts, safe in the knowledge that he’ll struggle to beat them through the air unless Hurts takes a huge step forward and is able to lead his receivers out of trouble instead of into it. He can absolutely make a living doing that, but he’s capable of so much more.
For what it’s worth, Nick Sirianni was a rookie Head Coach, he had a young coaching staff, and a quarterback who’s clearly raw as a passer. That may explain why Smith was used so one-dimensionally. But if patience is the name of the game, then 2022 is the second chapter in the Sirianni novel and there has to be some character development.
The Eagles don’t just have a great receiver in DeVonta Smith. He’s the best wideout they’ve had in nearly a decade and is only one year into what could be a truly sensational NFL career. They have to do all they can to ensure that he has every chance of becoming the receiver be has all the intangibles to be.
Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire