Is size a skill?
Some variation of that question faces NFL teams every year when it comes to the draft. Over the years teams have established measurable thresholds for every position. And while those thresholds vary by team and position, they can serve as a valuable cut-off and check against evaluators’ personal biases.
But what happens when a highly regarded player falls below of those thresholds? Do teams bend their rules if they really like the prospect, or do they stand firm? Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith was incredibly productive over the last two years at Alabama, seizing the opportunity presented by the injury to teammate Jaylen Waddle and posting massive numbers his senior year. However, Smith also comes with significant size concerns after measuring in at 6-foot, 166 pounds at the NFL’s medical re-check.
Smith is smart and was highly productive, but how good will teams feel about a receiver who could be giving up 40 pounds to opposing cornerbacks? Can he be an outlier and have a productive NFL career despite lacking “NFL size”?
Games Played: 47
Yards (YPC): 3,965 (16.9 per catch)
Games Played: 13
Yards (YPC): 1,856 (15.9 per catch)
Best: Route running, quickness, hands, ball skills, football IQ
Worst: Size, strength, long speed
Projection: A starting slot receiver or flanker in a West Coast or Spread offense.
Alabama’s Devonta Smith is a highly productive and competitive receiver prospect with good quickness, agility, route running, and ball skills.
Smith has been used in a variety of roles in the Alabama offense, lining up in the “X” and Flanker positions, as well as in the slot and used in jet motion. Smith features quick feet and a variety of release strategies to get off the line of scrimmage and get into his routes with a minimum of wasted time and motion. His most effective move is a quick stutter step at the snap of the ball to disrupt defensive backs’ timing and prevent hard contact as he gets into his route.
Smith is a smooth, savvy, and nuanced route runner, routinely varying his stride length and tempo to further keep defensive backs out of phase with him. He is at his best on quick routes or routes that require quick breaks, showing very good stop-start quickness as well as sharp, precise breaks at the top of his routes. His precision makes him particularly effective on plays which use route concepts to scheme separation.
Smith shows a good understanding of coverage schemes and routinely adjusts his routes to find voids in zone coverage or take advantage of defenders put in conflict by route concepts.
He possesses good ball skills down the field, easily locating, tracking, and adjusting to the ball in the air. Smith is a natural “hands” catcher who extends to maximize his catch radius and secure the ball in contested situations. Smith shows good competitive toughness as well, and doesn’t back down from those situations and is willing to battle defensive backs throughout the game.
Smith’s lack of size and slight frame will be the most significant question marks in his evaluation. He is severely undersized at 6-foot ¼ inch, 166 pounds, and that lack of size makes winning physical match-ups difficult at best. Smith can be rerouted at the line of scrimmage when he isn’t able to quickly gain a clean release at the start of the play. Likewise, he struggles to separate against physical man coverage and can be bullied at the catch point. Smith also lacks great long speed and doesn’t appear to have an “extra gear” running down the field. He can be caught by faster defensive backs and doesn’t regularly generate separation if he gets a step on a corner. Smith is quick enough to generate separation out of his breaks, but can maintain it at best.
And while Smith is a willing blocker, his blocking ability is a liability due to a lack of play strength and body mass. He shouldn’t be asked to make key blocks at the NFL level.
Overall Grade: 9.0 - This prospect has the mental and athletic traits to start and be a productive contributor in the NFL, but could face definite schematic and positional limitations.
Smith projects best as a starting slot receiver in an offense based in West Coast or Spread principles.
Playing exclusively out of the slot — and bunch sets — will help protect Smith against the bigger, more physical cornerbacks he would see routinely playing the “X” or Flanker positions outside in the NFL. The slot position will give Smith the opportunity to match up against corners down opposing defenses’ depth chart, or safeties and linebackers, any of which would favor his route running and ball skills. This would also mirror much of what Alabama did to secure free releases for their primary receiving threats. Alabama’s offense would frequently move Smith — as well as Jaylen Waddle — into the slot, bunch sets, or motion into stack formations to help them get off the line of scrimmage and into their routes as cleanly as possible.
Smith’s precision route running would fit well in an offensive scheme built around quick-strike West Coast principles, where Smith would be able to win quickly without having to rely on his average long speed in vertical routes. Likewise, his nuanced, intelligent route running would benefit an offense which uses route concepts to create separation and beat coverages with scheme rather than individual athleticism.
Smith is capable of making explosive plays when put in position to do so, but his physical limitations could make him a more scheme-dependant player at the NFL level.
The greater concern for Smith is whether his size will make him more susceptible to injury exclusively playing the middle of the field at the NFL level.