Almost two months ago, Nick Farabaugh, my colleague here at Pro Football Network, waxed poetically about how good Alabama WR DeVonta Smith’s release repertoire is and its impact on his overall game. But having an elite release off the line of scrimmage can only get you so far; ask former Nebraska Cornhusker Quintez Cephus, who’s now with the Detroit Lions as a rookie after being drafted in the fifth round. Smith isn’t a one-trick pony, either. He finishes as strong as anybody in college football, and he’s no slouch at the top of his routes.
DeVonta Smith’s ability to finish is elite
When one sits back and watches the tape of the 2019 Alabama Crimson Tide, it could be easy to feel underwhelmed by Smith’s athleticism, but that is simply the product of being around talented Alabama WR’s like Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle, and Jerry Jeudy. Smith is no slouch as an athlete either, and his vertical explosiveness is his party gift. He’s taller than the others, which makes horizontal fluidity more difficult, but his leaping ability and hands in contested situations are mind-boggling.
With that ability also comes his awareness around the sideline. Smith has a somewhat lean frame, but he plays with impressive physicality both at the top of his routes and along the stem, which keeps him from getting pinched to the sideline (his releases helps him here too). Daniel Jeremiah even likened his game to Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison, given their frames, play style, and steady hands.
Smith’s ability to finish is most evident in contested situations and instances of imminent contact over the middle. The amount of concentration and physicality he plays with through contact is ideal. Even Ruggs, who had a ridiculously low drop rate in college, concedes that Smith had the team’s best hands in 2019.
There is a reason that Smith led Alabama in touchdowns and was second in catches last season at WR, despite possibly having the lowest draft value. His ability to work around traffic and finish catches in the air makes him an ideal downfield sideline target in the red zone. To top it off, his ability to create early space puts him in situations where scoring can come more easily.
Smith not as sudden as others, but the top of his routes remain crisp
DeVonta Smith possesses a propensity to separate downfield. What would be better than for Smith to be able to stop on a dime on curl and comeback routes that leave cornerbacks flying by? Well, he was able to do that against arguably the best cornerback in the country in LSU’s Derek Stingley last season.
DeVonta Smith’s long legs make it a bit more difficult to sink and drive on obtuse route breaks efficiently, but he has improved year over year in this aspect, and I expect it to continue through 2020. What helps him separate so well overall is his physicality through the top of his route. He’s able to use his hands and arm to separate from a crowding cornerback at the top of his route before snapping it off without catching an offensive pass interference call.
What would bring him to the next level as a route runner would be to become less predictable in the speed he’s using. His tempo is pretty flat overall and could use some pace change to really explode out of routes and create open throwing windows.
Smith faces a big matchup test against Georgia
The University of Georgia has two cornerbacks, Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes, that will try and thwart Smith and Waddle’s efforts for four quarters. If DeVonta Smith has a big game against Campbell, who some believe to be a top-20 talent (a lot of upside), he could cement his status as a first-round draft selection come April.