“Life ain’t fair, and the world is mean.” It’s not just a country music song from Sturgill Simpson. There is undeniable truth in that statement. There may be no better example of that than the Alabama wide receiver corps over the past two seasons. Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy were the first receivers drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft. DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle are better than both Ruggs and Jeudy. Life isn’t fair, and the world is mean.
Which Alabama receiver goes first in the 2021 NFL Draft?
My initial reaction is to pick Jaylen Waddle. Now, before I go on, this is the opposite of what the rumors are at the moment. After speaking with several people more in the know than I, it seems the general feeling is DeVonta Smith is the first Alabama receiver to go. However, I think once the dust settles and NFL Combine testing ends, Waddle will be the guy.
Smith was the best player in college football this year. He was the Heisman Trophy winner, and for a good reason. However, through four games this season, Jaylen Waddle was outpacing Smith in yards per route run in the Alabama receiver room. At the time of his injury, he was nearly doubling the mark set by former teammate Henry Ruggs in that metric and was a full yard better than Jeudy.
There should be few arguments at this point surrounding which class is the better of the two. Smith and Waddle are more complete players than Ruggs and Jeudy.
Why will Jaylen Waddle go before DeVonta Smith?
As we’ve shifted into a world of acceptance from the standpoint of venturing outside of the cultural norms set by the NFL’s history, it seems that’s continued with there not being much mention nationally about Smith’s body. Heck, two years ago, a 5-foot-10 quarterback went number one overall. Good players are good players. However, although DeVonta Smith is a fine athlete for the position, he is also not an elite athlete. At over 6 feet and under 180 pounds, he is an anatomical anomaly.
On the flip side, Waddle is also a fun-sized prospect, but his frame holds the weight in a more aesthetically pleasing manner. Additionally, Waddle WILL test as an elite athlete for the position, which will go a long way toward winning an argument in a war room. There will be arguments made between DeVonta Smith’s proven production and the more traditionally-bodied, better athlete in Waddle, who was also more efficient at receiver when healthy.
Waddle is more dynamic
I think of it this way. Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins are probably seen as better receivers than Tyreek Hill. However, if you ask a defensive coordinator who they fear the most while game planning for the week, Hill probably receives the majority of votes. This has nothing to do with DeVonta Smith’s explosive abilities. He is quite adept downfield, and particularly so along the sidelines and in the air. Yet, Waddle is special.
He needed to become a more well-rounded receiver to reach his potential. His route running was suspect in years past, but it was always a fixable issue. The ability to efficiently gear down in and out of breaks and clean up his footwork on stop routes needed fine-tuning. All the evidence from his 2020 film suggests that he made outstanding strides in this area.
Also, let’s not forget. This young man averaged a bonkers 24.4 yards per return on punts in 2019. His ability with the ball in his hands is difficult to articulate correctly. Imagine Jeudy’s agility and footwork with Ruggs’ explosiveness and speed, but with some added contact balance. He’s not too shabby as a kick returner either.
Waddle hasn’t reached his ceiling yet (and DeVonta Smith may not have either)
Despite making improvements in his ability as a route runner, he can still become more technically proficient. His footwork and ability to change direction to separate is unrivaled due to his play speed and ability to start/stop in a blink. Defenders have to work as hard as is physically possible not to drown carrying him vertically, which stresses their ability to transition and mirror his route breaks.
With that, he must continue to improve his ability to set defenders up along the stem and at the top of routes. There are still many instances where he relies on his abilities rather than using the defender’s deficiencies against them.
If he can better learn to attack blind spots and use his feet and eyes to lie, he will be completely uncoverable. He has “the most dangerous weapon in the league” potential. If he comes back from his ankle surgery for the title game, it’ll be difficult for Ohio State to keep up.
DeVonta Smith won’t go down without a fight
And fight he will. It’s the biggest reason many aren’t concerned with his slight frame. Smith’s physicality on tape is as startling as your drunk uncle telling a story about his mid-20s.
The 175-pound “Slim Reaper” fights through contact and gains extra yards as a ball carrier due to his forward lean and sheer determination to find the sticks. Another more developed trait than Waddle’s is his catch radius and willingness to elevate over the middle despite the fear of decapitation. DeVonta Smith is a dog, and there is little doubt he’ll produce at a high level in the NFL.