That’s why Nick Sirianni wanted DeVonta Smith to play in the preseason.
As far as NFL preseason debuts go, Smith’s wasn’t great. It was an up-and-down evening for the No. 10 overall pick as the Eagles were bludgeoned by the Patriots, 35-0, at the Linc.
But he got his feet wet, got some mistakes out of the way and showed some encouraging signs after looking — as Sirianni called it — “antsy” at the start.
“That's what happens with young wideouts,” Sirianni said. “They have to play and go through the ups and downs a little bit, and the preseason is for that to happen.”
Smith, 22, missed significant time this summer with a knee sprain suffered early in training camp and just returned to practice earlier this week. He had just one day in team drills before playing in his preseason debut. So maybe there was some rust, maybe there were some nerves or maybe he just made some uncharacteristic mistakes on Thursday night.
“It felt good just to get out there and get back in a groove [with] my routine before the game and stuff like that,” Smith said. “Just to get back out there and just kind of get back to myself.”
In all, Smith played 26 snaps (all in the first half) and his stat line was certainly underwhelming. He caught 2 passes on 4 targets for 19 yards. He was actually targeted five times but one of his drops came on a play that was nullified because of a penalty. Smith, who is known for his sure hands, dropped a couple balls on Thursday night.
For what it’s worth, Smith disagreed with Sirianni’s notion that he was “antsy.”
“Nah. Stuff just happened,” Smith said. “Gotta make the plays they expect me to make.”
Joe Flacco and Smith had a chance to connect for a big play on the first snap of the second quarter but they failed. Flacco hit Smith with a back shoulder throw on the right sideline and Smith was just a little slow turning back for the ball. Once he turned, the ball ate him up and he couldn’t haul it in.
Remember, Flacco and Smith haven’t really worked together this summer. And Flacco was a surprise starter on Thursday after Jalen Hurts was sent to the hospital to get checked out.
Smith has practiced just a few days total and that work has been with the first team, while Flacco has been running with the twos. But they are just one injury away from playing with each other this season. Smith dropped a couple balls but some of Flacco’s passes weren’t on the money either.
“Obviously we would have liked to do a little better of a job, but at the same time I wouldn’t say it was anything crazy or pressing,” Flacco said. “It was good to see him get out there and run some routes against some press-coverage. Some physicality out there. So that’s always good to get him in there and get us some action anyway.”
While the drops from Smith will obviously need to be cleaned up — the Eagles hope he got them out of his system on Thursday night — there was one huge positive to take out of this game for the rookie receiver.
He can separate.
Coming into the 2021 draft, Smith was known as a very polished route runner and that showed up on Thursday night. The Heisman Trophy winner thrived on gaining separation with his routes in college and he showed the ability to do that at the NFL level on Thursday night.
Smith technically didn’t start on Thursday night. The Eagles came out in 13 personnel with Quez Watkins as the only receiver on the field. But Smith is clearly a starter and he played the first half with Watkins and fellow first-round pick Jalen Reagor. Those three are looking like the starters heading into this season.
The Eagles will clearly be relying on Smith in his rookie year. The over/under for receiving yards for Smith, via PointsBet, is 750.5. The Eagles need Smith to be good and they need him to be good starting in Week 1 in Atlanta.
And that’s why Sirianni wanted him to play this preseason.
“Again, we will look at the tape to see totally how he played,” Sirianni said, “but I'm glad he got in there and was able to play a good, meaningful first half and take a couple hits and have to go against some of those tight coverage looks he had to get.”
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