Sure, he doesn’t have the gaudy numbers of the receiver drafted five spots above him, which isn’t all on him, considering Ja’Marr Chase has 25 more targets on the season, but Smith has the most receiving yards by an Eagles wide receiver since 2018 and is less than 40 yards away from setting the team’s new franchise record for rookie receiving yards.
Smith runs clean routes, embraces contact on contested catches, and has a bag of tricks that would make Mary Poppins blush. With some more seasoning and a bit more development by his college teammate, Jalen Hurts, there’s little reason to believe Smith won’t one day be considered one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers if he isn’t as soon as 2022, especially if he’s paired up with a legit number 2 like Calvin Ridley.
That’s the good news. The bad news? The Philadelphia Eagles are leaving a lot of yards on the table by using DeVonta Smith in a very vanilla way.
DeVonta Smith could dominate for the Philadelphia Eagles in the slot.
During his final season at Alabama, DeVonta Smith led the NCAA in screens, screen yards, deep catches, and deep yards, according to Pro Football Focus. Whether tasked with getting yards on his own in the open field or having to get open down the field for a game-changing play, there quite literally wasn’t a better player in the college football ranks than the Heisman Trophy winner. While Smith only recorded the 15th-most snaps in the slot of any qualifying player, he ranked fifth in yards out of the slot, with signifies an ability to vastly outperform his expected yardage total.
As a pro, Smith has been targeted a few times on deep balls and even has a nice touchdown on his resume as a result, but he’s mostly been utilized in the intermediate part of the field, specifically on Nick Sirianni‘s favorite play, the comeback.
But in the slot and the screen game? Yeah, Smith hasn’t been utilized nearly as much as his stats would suggest he should be.
Once again, per PFF, Smith has only logged 95 snaps in the slot versus 798 on the outside, good for a little over 10 percent of his total offensive production. Maybe that’s because the Eagles have largely utilized Quez Watkins out of the slot, with 515 of his 740 offensive snaps coming on the inside, and/or because both Jalen Reagor and Greg Ward have more interior snaps than the supremely talented rookie, but when Smith ranks fourth on the team in snaps on the inside despite his pedigree, there’s something wrong with that picture.
The solution? Line Smith up in the slot and throw him some screens.
I know, talk about a buzzkill, but honestly, what else could the team do? Smith is a good player in space, and while he’s been a great run blocker on the outside, there’s little reason to believe he couldn’t translate his collegiate slot production to the pros, especially with JJ Arcega-Whiteside lined up wide and run blockers like Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata, and Lane Johnson available as downfield lead blockers.
Between you and me, I would imagine even Swoop the Mascot could pick up a first down with three of those players opening up lanes, so imagine what Smith could do in a similar situation.
In his current role, DeVonta Smith is a top-32 wide receiver any day of the week, but in the modern-day NFL, very few elite wide receivers do their damage exclusively from one position or one part of the field. No, even Cooper Kupp, considered the best slot wide receiver in the game, has played 34 percent of his snaps on the outside and could potentially set a few all-time NFL records in Week 18 because of that versatility. To truly unlock Smith’s ceiling as a pro, the Philadelphia Eagles would be wise to cycle their best wide receiver into the slot a few more times per game and maybe throw his a darn screen or two while they’re at it.