2021 NFL Draft Rookie Profile: DeVonta Smith (Fantasy Football)
Next up in our Rookie Profile series is a player who is coming off of an absolutely dominant 2020 season: DeVonta Smith, Alabama WR. He returned for his fourth collegiate season, showing us why he undoubtedly should be taken in the first round of this year’s NFL draft. However, despite his impressive year, earning the Heisman Trophy, Smith continues to be a polarizing prospect. While most analysts have him entrenched in the top 2 or 3 of their WR rankings, the concerns regarding his late breakout and smaller frame remain. Let’s dive into his film, production profile, and athletic measurables to determine just how good Smith can be at the next level.
Editors Note: This article is part of our Rookie Profile series going on until the 2021 NFL Draft. For more on each rookie, check out Andy, Mike, and Jason’s exclusive rookie rankings and production profiles found only in the Dynasty Pass, part of the brand-new UDK+ for 2021.
College Production Profile
Coming out of Amite High School, DeVonta Smith received plenty of interest from schools such as LSU, Florida State, and Miami. He would ultimately commit to the University of Alabama, joining a crowded WR corps led by Calvin Ridley. With players like Jerry Jeudy, Irv Smith Jr, and Henry Ruggs also vying for targets, Smith had a relatively quiet freshman year with only 160 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. His Sophomore year would be a slight improvement, though he would continue to play behind Jeudy, Ruggs, and freshman Jaylen Waddle. It is important to note that Alabama did increase its passing rate from 35% in 2017 to 43% the following year. So while Smith’s overall stats did improve, his dominator rating per game only increased from 13% in his freshman year to 14% in his second season.
Smith’s true breakout season would come in 2019 where he would take on a more significant role, leading this Alabama offense in total receiving production. He would improve his dominator rating to 28%, finishing 3rd in the SEC in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in his Junior year. And while many believed that Smith would declare for the NFL draft along with fellow Alabama receivers Ruggs and Jeudy, he surprised many by returning for his 4th college season. Generally, we want to see receivers declare as early as possible. But if they do decide to stay for an extra season, we want to see them absolutely dominate. That is exactly what Smith did in 2020. He would accumulate the 6th most single-season receiving yards in CFB history (1,856) while accounting for 47% of his team’s total receiving production. It was a truly dominant year for Smith, operating as the focal point of the offense with Waddle mostly injured this past season.
In total, Smith had a relatively productive collegiate career. He finished with a 28% career dominator rating and an impressive 2.71 receiving yards per team pass attempt (per game) in his four years at Alabama. However, with a college breakout age of 20.8, Smith only ranks in the 42nd percentile among all NFL receivers. That will remain a negative on Smith’s production profile; however, he did show towards the end of his career just how significant his upside could be. Therefore, expect Smith to be one of the first receivers drafted in this year’s WR class.
40-yard dash (HS)
If there is one glaring flaw in Smith’s overall profile, it would be his athletic measurables. His 175-pound frame could be a significant concern at the next level, where defenders are both stronger and more athletic. In addition, his 40-yard dash of 4.49 (per 247 Sports) could be a slight concern as well. Considering his smaller frame, it would be ideal for Smith to improve on that score. Regardless, as you likely know, straight-line speed is not indicative of on-field athleticism. In Smith’s film, he displayed plenty of speed and burst to gain separation. The bigger concern will continue to be his smaller frame. For reference, according to the UDK Dynasty Pass, the average WR1 weighs roughly 210.8 lbs, which is about 35 lbs more than Smith’s current weight. The encouraging news, however, is that Smith did gain 10 pounds throughout his collegiate career. If he can make a similar transformation into the 190 to 200 lb range in his first few years in the league, it would provide him with a more ideal frame to withstand the physicality of the NFL.
What’s on Tape
If you followed along with my weekly Dynasty Report, you might already be familiar with my film-evaluation process. In short, I try to watch 4-to-6 games per player, analyzing every snap in each of those games. Let’s dive into DeVonta Smith’s tape!
Games Viewed: Ole Smith (2019), Georgia (2020), Florida (2020), Mississippi State (2020), Notre Dame (2020)
1. DeVonta Smith is an exceptional route runner and separator with the ability to beat a defense in a variety of ways
The most inherent trait in DeVonta Smith’s game is his ability to effortlessly create separation in a multitude of ways. It starts with his explosive release at the line, which almost resembles a crossover-esque movement. With his longer frame, he covers a wide area with his release. So when he jab steps in either direction, he leverages his frame and explosive first step to immediately gain separation. If the DB does manage to keep up, Smith has a variety of tricks up his sleeve. The stutter steps, the sudden hesitation, the head fakes – all contribute to Smith’s ability to get open at will, no matter where he is on the field.
One of my favorite observations from Smith’s route running is just how committed he is to deceiving his defender. You will notice that he uses his full body (head, hips, hands, etc.) to bait the defense. Because of his ability to sell routes so convincingly, it becomes extremely difficult to cover Smith in one on one situations. Below we see him executing the double move. When he first breaks out of his route, his trajectory is almost perpendicular to the sideline. After a subtle head movement, the DB adjusts to defend the initial out route. Smith then takes advantage and accelerates up the field to gain separation. And to end the play, we see Smith hold on despite the contact.
2. Smith aggressively pursues the ball nearly every time he gets targeted
No matter how tightly you try to cover Smith, expect him to make an aggressive pursuit towards the ball. In the five games that I reviewed, I saw a handful of plays where the ball was thrown slightly off target, but Smith still found a way to corral the reception. And while not every play resulted in a catch, his extra effort to pursue the ball also prevented a couple of interceptions. If Smith would have given up on some of those plays, the defender would have been in an ideal position to pick off the pass. Furthermore, Smith’s length and vertical were on full display in several contested situations. His ability to adjust his body mid-air to make a play through contact, or even a double team, often yielded positive results. In fact, according to PFF, Smith is tied for 1st among all Power 5 WRs since 2019 with seven contested TD receptions.
3. Yes, his size is a concern, but Smith often found a way to overcome that deficiency
As I already highlighted above, Smith has a much lighter frame than a typical WR1 in the NFL. However, that did not stop him from creating separation and excelling in yards after the catch situations. Especially in the open field, he did not have to rely on his size to create yards. It was the subtle movements, quick side steps, and speed variation that allowed him to create big plays. He often displayed the determination and willingness to power through the physicality of the defense, sometimes even lowering his shoulder to absorb the contact. Lastly, Smith was also impressive at leveraging his angles in the open field to put himself in a situation to brush off tackles. Simply put, Smith knew that his size was not to his advantage. Instead, he used his timely and savvy movements along with his football IQ to beat defenders in a variety of ways.
What’s Not on Tape
1. Blocking will likely remain an issue against more physical defenders
This is an aspect of Smith’s game where his lack of size was, at times, too much to overcome. Especially against stronger linebackers and safeties, Smith would struggle to stay in front of the defender and effectively block for the offense. It was concerning how easily he would be pushed to the side, sometimes unable to hold the block long enough for his teammates. As a result, his inability to block would occasionally lead to negative plays. And yes, blocking will not yield to fantasy points, but it will allow receivers to find additional playing time at the next level.
2. Smith did not shy away from contact. Is that sustainable?
As I mentioned previously, Smith was not opposed to initiating contact in the open field. This resulted in plenty of heavy hits against more physical defenders. One specific sequence that comes to mind was against Georgia in 2020. After Smith reeled in a reception in the middle of the field, the corner literally picked him up and slammed him down to the ground. I would imagine that would never happen to a player like Ja’Marr Chase, who is nearly 30 lbs heavier than Smith. Now, admittedly, this is a minor concern if Smith can remain healthy. But I do wonder if these heavy tackles and hits will eventually take a toll on his lighter frame.
2021 Fantasy Outlook
To summarize, DeVonta Smith is a tactician on the field who will beat the defense in a variety of ways. From a skillset standpoint, Smith has all the necessary tools to be successful in the NFL. He can find success after the catch, down the field, and even in contested situations. The negatives in his profile will continue to be his late breakout age and lighter frame, which does make him a slight outlier if we do project him as a WR1. Regardless, draft capital should not be an issue for Smith as he could go as early as 3rd overall to the WR-needy Miami Dolphins. From a fantasy standpoint, expect Smith to be drafted in the mid-first round of most rookie drafts. In a Super-Flex league, I would not be surprised to see Smith drop as low as the 1.09 to 1.12, considering the numerous RBs and QBs likely going ahead of him. Therefore, if you are targeting Smith, a mid-to-late first-round pick may be sufficient to draft the former Alabama WR.