PATS REPORTER

Perry: Is DeVonta Smith the best fit for Pats among Alabama WRs?

PATS REPORTER

That Crimson blur you watched running up, down and across your screens Monday night might not be the open-and-shut receiver evaluation you believe him to be.

I believed him to be one of those, too.

But after reaching out to NFL evaluators following DeVonta Smith's whirlwind 12-catch, 215-yard, three-touchdown performance, it sounds like Smith is not unanimously considered a slam-dunk, top-of-the-draft talent.

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The Heisman Trophy winner has compiled all the numbers an NFL front office could ever want. And more. Smith finished the 2020 season with 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. He averaged 15.9 yards per catch and was arguably the best player on one of the best offenses that college football has seen in recent memory.

But there's one number that gives personnel people pause: 175. As in his listed weight. At 175 pounds, Smith will be dogged by questions about his frame throughout the pre-draft process -- something he referenced in his Heisman acceptance speech -- and would be an outlier if considered by the NFL to be worthy of a high-end first-round pick.

Over the last 15 years, only three players have weighed less than 185 pounds -- 10 pounds heavier than Smith's listed weight -- and been drafted in the first round: Marquise Brown (2019), Tavon Austin (2013) and Ted Ginn (2007).

 

While light, all three of those players had the standout quality personnel people value: speed.

Brown (166 pounds) missed pre-draft workouts while recovering from surgery, but he'd clocked a 40-yard dash time in the 4.3 range previously and was unanimously perceived as having elite giddyup in 2019. Austin (174 pounds) ran a 4.34 at the combine. Ginn (178 pounds) was clocked in the 4.3s at his pro day. 

Others to whom Smith has drawn comparisons tend to be true burners. DeSean Jackson went in the second round in 2008 and ran a 4.35-second 40 at that year's combine at 169 pounds. Marvin Harrison, the high-end comp some have cited for Smith, reportedly ran a 4.38-second 40 as a senior. He checked into the 1996 combine at 181 pounds.

But Smith isn't considered to have that kind of juice. The expectation from NFL folks seems to be that he will run in the 4.4s or low 4.5s.

"Good speed," said one AFC evaluator, "not great."

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That's not to say Smith is considered a run-of-the-mill player by any means. Reports on him are glowing. Just a little more complicated by his size and perceived athletic profile.

He's a polished route-runner with good quickness, dependable hands, remarkable body control, and scouts appreciate the fact that he plays bigger than his weight thanks to a wide catch radius.

But should he be in consideration to be taken in the top five picks of the draft this spring? If he's going to be Harrison from a production standpoint, of course. But that's a Hall of Fame-level bar. 

Smith's evaluation is challenging enough that, despite his unbelievable college career, he could slip past the first handful of selections in the draft. Good news for Patriots fans, perhaps, who'd like to see their offense get an immediate boost at the receiver position. 

But, as we've tracked in our Prototypical Patriots series, Smith doesn't check the physical thresholds Bill Belichick has typically drafted in New England at receiver.

The average outside-the-numbers player Belichick has drafted in the first four rounds has a 40-yard dash time of about 4.38 seconds and approximately a 36.5-inch vert. None have measured shorter than 5-foot-11 (Smith is 6-foot-1)  ... or lighter than 198 pounds.

The average slot receiver Belichick has drafted is a little slower (about a 4.46-second 40) and a little less explosive (36-inch vertical). None have measured shorter than 5-foot-8 ... or lighter than 184 pounds.

So picture this: The Patriots are waiting to pick at No. 15 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft and three Alabama players remain. Quarterback Mac Jones is still available. Receiver Jaylen Waddle is still available. And Smith is still available.

Where do they turn?

The most valuable position on the roster is one that could use some new blood. And Jones fits a lot of what Belichick and the Patriots are looking for at that spot, as we detailed here prior to Jones going off for 464 yards and five scores in the national title game.

 

But the receiver spot could use an upgrade, too. And when compared to Smith, Waddle looks like he could be the better fit for the Patriots at the moment. 

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At 5-foot-10, 182 pounds, like Smith, Waddle is not exactly a heavyweight. He'd fall below the physical thresholds the Patriots have taken early in the draft, but just barely. And before suffering an ankle injury this season that required surgery, Waddle was the fastest of a very fast group of pass-catchers in Alabama's offense. His quickness and hands could make him a logical fit as a slot option with the ability to get vertical. Or he could play a "Z" receiver role as someone who can be put in motion and align just about anywhere. 

There's plenty of time between now and April for teams to cement their opinions on prospects. Smith included. But his build is rare for the NFL, and there are questions about what kind of athlete he is. 

That could mean he ends up being available longer than his video-game numbers -- including his light-up-the-scoreboard national title game performance -- would suggest he should be.