In the history of the Eagles franchise, one of the biggest problems that the team has consistently had to deal with is the need for more receiving weapons. From year to year, whether it is Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb or Carson Wentz, there is always chatter about needing to get more weapons. While it may be still too premature to call now, the Eagles will not have that problem in 2022.
Thanks to a complete revamp of the wide receiver position over the last few years, the birds have turned a once pitiful group of practice squaders and draft busts into one of the premier groups in the NFL. While many associate this mainly with the draft night blockbuster trade that sent A.J. Brown from Nashville to Philadelphia, the roots of this overhaul, and perhaps its biggest contributor are actually from draft night of the previous year.
On April 29, 2021, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Devonta Smith with the 10th overall in the NFL draft. In a franchise altering move, Howie Roseman decided to forgo their usual draft tendencies of a lineman and took the best player available. This move has completely changed the overall trajectory of the offense. At the time, it was considered a successful pick and most fans were supportive of it, and as time has passed the pick looks even better.
DeVonta Smith broke the Eagles rookie receiving record, previously held by DeSean Jackson, by posting 916 yards, to go along with 5 touchdowns and quite a few highlight catches. As time goes by, this selection has only looked better, but the full potential of the pick has not even begun to show.
Record Breaking Rookie
In today’s pass-happy NFL, 916 yards and 5 touchdowns is good, very good even, but it is the context in which Smith achieved this that made it so impressive. In a season where no one would have really blamed him if he underperformed, Smith became the brightest and most reliable star. With a rookie head coach trying to find his footing, inconsistent quarterback play and an offensive scheme that essentially threw the passing game away, it would’ve been hard for any wide receiver to succeed, especially one as young as him.
DeVonta Smith proved he can not only handle adversity, but can thrive in it. From the first game of the season, where he caught the team’s first touchdown on a beautiful fade route, to the last game where he broke the rookie receiving record, Smith was constantly helping the team win games.
Growth in the NFL is not always linear, but there is reason to believe that there is a huge jump coming in year 2 for DeVonta Smith. In college, his receiving yards per season rose almost exponentially from year to year. As a freshman at Alabama, he amassed 160 yards, then 693 his sophomore year, to 1,256 his junior year and finally, 1,856 yards his senior year in which he won the Heisman Trophy for being the most outstanding player in college football.
He also has all the physical and mental traits needed to be a superstar in the league. He won’t blow anyone away with size alone since being 6 foot and 170 pounds is not exactly the prototypical football body type, but he is exceptional at everything he can control.
DeVonta Smith knows the game extremely well, especially since he went to Alabama, or better known as the NFL player factory. He also is an elite route runner, which may be the most important skill to staying very good for a long time. As he ages and his physical body starts to deteriorate, he will be able to stay productive since he can release at exactly the right time and be in the right spot to beat a defender. He also is very good at blocking, and given the team he’s on, that will never not be important.
Perhaps the most important part in bringing the potential out of DeVonta Smith is that he will just be getting the ball more in general. The 2021 Eagles had the highest percentage of running plays in the entire NFL. Due to just basic regression to the mean and the fact that the roster has improved and Jeffrey Lurie is known to like passing offenses, increased opportunity alone will be a big factor in DeVonta Smith’s development into a top pass catcher.
Eagles fans, as well as sports writers in the national and local scene all seem to mostly agree that A.J. is the number one receiver going into the 2022 season. While that may be true for now, before the year is over, DeVonta Smith can overtake him. The team is excited about him, with his running mate saying that he expects Smitty to dominate, and even went as far as to call him a number 1 receiver.
This issue of DeVonta Smith being overshadowed by the other talent on the team will be challenged as the year goes on. Teams will begin to figure out that you can’t put a #2 cornerback on DeVonta Smith because his skillset is too elite to be defended by any ol’ player. Smitty may not reach his full potential ever, but if he can build off of what he did in his rookie season, with a much better situation and more help, the league is in trouble. He is unlike any other player drafted by the Eagles, and that could not be more exciting.
Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire