Last year, DeVonta Smith became the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in nearly 30 years. He led all FBS players in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns, and had 215 yards and three scores in Alabama’s national championship game victory—before halftime. He’s unquestionably one of the best players in recent college football history, and might have an argument for the best college receiver of all time. Yet he is unlikely to be the top pass catcher taken in this year’s NFL draft. In fact, he might not even be the first receiver selected from his own team.
Smith sits behind LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, the consensus top receiver in this year’s draft, on most public draft boards. And some of the industry’s most respected draft analysts, like NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, also put Smith behind former teammate Jaylen Waddle. The primary reason for this is that Smith is skinny. Real skinny. Alabama lists him as 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds. That is the same height and weight that White House physicians listed for Barack Obama back in 2016.
Smith may be even lighter than that. The receiver has had three different opportunities to be officially weighed and measured over the past three months, and he’s declined every time. But you don’t need numbers to see he’s football’s Flat Stanley.
Smith even mentioned his size during his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. “To all the young kids out there that’s not the biggest, not the strongest, just keep pushing,” Smith said. “Because I’m not the biggest. I’ve been doubted a lot just because of my size.”
But Smith’s size isn’t the only knock draft analysts have against him. There’s also the fact that he played in one of the best offenses in college football history, with four other first-round receivers, potentially two first-round quarterbacks, and a litany of NFL-caliber linemen. And while Smith’s 2020 season was dominant, his campaign came as a 22-year-old senior—an age when many of his peers were already in the NFL.
Smith is a unicorn prospect with almost no modern precedent for his size, his surrounding talent, and his stats. But are the cases against him valid? Let’s look at the question marks surrounding the most fascinating non-quarterback in this year’s draft and see which concerns hold water, and which are just water weight.
Can a dude who could fit J.J. Watt’s pant leg around his midriff really make it in the NFL? Teams typically shy away from investing significant capital into players of Smith’s ilk. Of all the receivers to be drafted in the past 20 years who were at least 5-foot-10 and under 180 pounds, only one (Ted Ginn Jr.) went in the first round.
Smith’s success in the league will depend on how much physicality he can both handle and avoid. The biggest question for small receivers is how they’ll deal with press coverage, which is when a defender puts his hands on a receiver to physically disrupt them at or near the line of scrimmage. Here’s an example of former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis pressing a receiver in practice.
Receiving is largely a timing game. If a cornerback’s press throws off a pass catcher’s route or rhythm, the offensive play call will not work. Conventional wisdom says that smaller players have more trouble with press coverage than larger ones. And the reason isn’t rocket science. Smith and his Obama-like measurables will be easier to manhandle than, say, Seattle receiver D.K. Metcalf (6-foot-4, 229 pounds). If a cornerback can get their hands on Smith, they might push him around like a dad with a cart at Home Depot.
But that’s if defenders can get their hands on Smith. Former NFL cornerback and current ESPN analyst Domonique Foxworth says that a quick receiver who can avoid being touched is more dangerous than a big receiver who can fight through a press.
“Quickness is the challenge when you’re pressing,” Foxworth says. “[Cornerbacks] can stay in front of a big guy. You may not destroy him at the line of scrimmage, but you’ve thrown the timing off. … It may look like you lost that press because D.K. Metcalf just barreled you for 5 yards down the field. It doesn’t look good. It’s ugly. But the time it took him to get you to that point, Russell [Wilson] has already looked somewhere else.”
Foxworth says that in the NFL, every pro has a con and every con has a pro—including Smith’s size.
From a defender’s perspective, “Smith’s size means, ‘Yeah, if I get my hands on him, I’m gonna crush him,’” Foxworth says. “But it also means, ‘I might miss him, and then that’s six.’”
Rischad Whitfield, a footwork coach and movement expert who goes by the charming name Footwork King on social media, has worked with NFL receivers and cornerbacks alike: from Odell Beckham Jr., CeeDee Lamb, and Emmanuel Sanders to Joe Haden, Xavien Howard, and Darius Slay. Whitfield says Smith’s weight isn’t a big concern in the NFL. In fact, it may even work to his advantage. Whitfield points to a basic tenet of physics: Force equals mass times acceleration. The lighter a receiver is, the faster he can accelerate. “Sometimes lighter is better,” Whitfield says.
The numbers suggest Whitfield is right. Last year, Smith was the best receiver in college football against press coverage. In fact, his 2020 numbers were the best for any college receiver against press coverage over the past five seasons. (The second-best season in that span was … DeVonta Smith’s 2019 campaign.) Theoretically, that should put to rest any doubt as to whether Smith can handle physical cornerbacks at the NFL level. But those numbers come from Pro Football Focus, and the site’s lead draft analyst, Mike Renner, says it is important to consider the context around those figures when projecting Smith to the NFL.
“College corners are like 180, 185 [pounds],” Renner says. “For the most part, these guys aren’t full-grown men. When you get to the NFL, they’re 205. It’s a big difference when that guy is 30, 40 pounds heavier than you. So that part of the game is just tougher. These [NFL defenders] are press technicians. You’ve got to have a Plan B. You can’t just shake every cornerback in the NFL at the line of scrimmage all the time.”
The other knock on small players is durability. Some believe that wiry players like Smith may not be able to handle the physical toll of the NFL. But this is somewhat of an outdated belief. Decades ago, catching passes over the middle of the field was so dangerous it was considered career-threatening. Now it’s where the majority of passing takes place. Rule changes to make the game safer mean smaller players like Smith no longer have to fear Ray Lewis creaming them over the middle. In fact, when players like Smith get matched up on a linebacker, the concern is for the linebacker—just check out what Smith did to Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland in the national championship game.
Tuf Borland was a four-star recruit. He is clearly in the top 1 or 2 percent of athleticism among humans on earth. This is the result of him attempting to play sports with DeVonta Smith pic.twitter.com/bM5C1DzkNJ— Alex Kirshner (@alex_kirshner) January 12, 2021
Renner sees Smith as a solid NFL receiver, and believes people focus on Smith’s size because there are so few flaws in his game. He is an elite route runner with good hands, strong acceleration, and great intangibles. But to Renner, size does matter.
“Everyone’s saying ‘greatest college receiver ever, how’s he fail?’” Renner says. “Well, I don’t think he fails. He’s not going to be a bust. But [his size] will be more of an issue at the NFL level.”
Smith’s numbers are as good as those of any college wide receiver ever, but it’s difficult to separate Smith from the rest of Alabama’s offensive machine. Last year’s Crimson Tide team had one of the best offenses ever. They averaged 48.5 points per game, the most in college football last year—and even more than LSU did in 2019 when it set the record for most points in a season in college football history (LSU played more total games).
Over the past two seasons, Smith played with three other receivers who either have been drafted in the first round already or are expected to be. Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy were the first two receivers off the board last year, and Waddle is a lock to go within the first 32 picks this year. And that doesn’t even include quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa, the no. 5 pick in 2020, and Mac Jones, who might go no. 3 this year. Nor does it include the plethora of top-tier offensive linemen Alabama has produced over recent seasons. How does one translate success within that system to success in the NFL, where Smith’s receiving corps might not be as deep?
The brightest feather in Smith’s cap is that he was the most productive receiver on the team in 2019, when Jeudy, Ruggs, and Waddle were all there with him. Then, when Jeudy and Ruggs left for the NFL, Smith won the Heisman. End of story, right? Not really. Renner points out that even though Smith won the Heisman last year, Waddle outproduced Smith in the four games both were healthy. Waddle started the season with 557 receiving yards in four games before breaking his ankle, while Smith had 483 in that span. Renner still has Smith one spot above Waddle on his big board, but only because of Waddle’s injury concerns. If both were healthy, Renner sees Waddle as the better player.
“[Waddle’s] a different caliber of athlete in the way he moves,” Renner says. He notes that Waddle has enough speed and short-area burst to remind teams of Tyreek Hill. Waddle acted as Alabama’s punt returner as a true freshman in 2018, and good college punt returners often become good NFL receivers because they are able to read the field and make defenders miss.
But while Waddle was the explosive speed demon, Smith’s role was different: He lined up just about everywhere and did just about everything. Smith was the NCAA’s best player on deep passes (he led all of college football in deep receiving yards and tied for first in deep catches) while also being the best on screens (leading in screen catches and screen yards), according to Doug Farrar of USA Today.
“Smith is the guy getting all the screens, getting the no. 1 targets in that offense,” Renner says. “[But] that might not be the case in the NFL. His screen production, the after-the-catch stuff he did, I don’t think that’s going to be his game once he gets to the league.”
Waddle’s profile as the explosive athlete may translate better to the NFL—or at least, it’s easier to envision. But there’s a simple retort to the idea that Waddle was better than Smith. Once Waddle went down, Smith was the crux of Alabama’s offense, and there was nothing opposing defenses could do to stop him. Even when every defense knew what Alabama was going to do—including Ohio State in the championship game—he still torched them.
It’s ridiculous to think that someone who led the FBS in every receiving category could have advanced stats that knock his NFL profile. But one stands out: That he’s too old. That is a strange thing to say about a 22-year-old, but there’s some math to back it up.
Frank DuPont and Shawn Siegele of Rotoviz invented a statistic called breakout age, which tracks how old a receiver was when they became the dominant receiver on their team. The stat has been around for only seven years, but it’s become a useful tool to help predict NFL performance. It helped forecast the rise of some of the top receivers in the pro game by identifying their dominance over college competition at young ages. For example: Stefon Diggs (18.6 years old, 97th percentile in breakout age), Justin Jefferson (19.6, 75th percentile), Chris Godwin (19.5, 78th percentile), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (18.8, 94th percentile).
The math behind the system is complicated, but the idea is simple: The younger a player is when they become the no. 1 receiver on their college football team, the more likely it is they’ll succeed in the NFL. A receiver who dominates competition at 19 is probably better than one who dominates at 21.
“When we’re looking at how well people translate to the NFL,” Siegele says, “those guys who came in and dominated in college right off the bat have a much better chance of being able to do the same thing at the NFL level.”
Similarly, most receivers who play four years in college don’t fare well in the NFL because if they were good enough, they would have declared for the draft after their junior season. Just look at the list of first-round wide receivers who played four seasons of college football over the past decade:
2011-20: Round 1 WRs w/ 4+ years in college ...— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) April 4, 2021
RIP DeVonta Smith?
Between 2009 and 2018, receivers with younger breakout ages who were taken in the second and third round of drafts have outperformed receivers with older breakout ages who were picked in the first round of drafts, according to the Rotoviz Rookie Draft Guide. So while Smith had one of the best seasons ever for a receiver, there’s the concern that he did it as a 22-year-old torching cornerbacks three years younger than him.
But even this argument has limits. First, there are the less advanced stats where, you know, Smith was the best receiver in America and earned the Heisman. But there are also other advanced metrics that suggest he’ll be great. Rotoviz also tracks a stat called adjusted production index, which includes breakout age along with yards and touchdowns per team pass attempt. There, Smith is in the 99th percentile.
It’s a strange case, especially considering the history of highly drafted receivers who played in their senior seasons. But the data leads Siegele and Co. to believe Smith is just one of a kind.
“Every once in a while,” Siegele says, “there are exceptions.”