How does Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith’s rookie season stack up so far? | David Murphy
The Eagles' No. 10 overall pick has made the best of some less than ideal circumstances, stacking up well amongst recent first-year receivers and Eagles rookies from years past.
You don’t have to be Odell Beckham Jr.’s father to know that wide receiver is the most situationally dependent position on the football field. Really, there isn’t a close second. Every reception on the stat sheet is as much a reflection of a quarterback’s passing ability, and an offensive line’s blocking ability, and a coach’s play-calling ability, as it is a reflection of a wide receiver’s ability to get himself open and catch a football.
Exhibit A: Robert Woods. In four seasons with the Bills from 2013-16, the former second-round draft pick averaged 3.6 catches and 43 yards per game, or the equivalent of 57 catches and 688 yards over 16 games. In the five seasons since he joined the Rams as a free agent, Woods has averaged 5.4 catches and 67.6 yards, a per-16-game pace of 86 catches and 1,081 yards.
Exhibit B: Davante Adams. In his last 49 games with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Adams has a stat line that rivals the all-time greats: a per-16-game average of 120 catches, 1,488 yards and 13 touchdowns. In his last seven games without Rodgers, Adams has a stat line that rivals Woods’ with the Rams: 94 catches, 1,118 yards, and nine touchdowns (per 16 games).
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Herein lies the difficulty in evaluating a rookie wide receiver like DeVonta Smith. With 33 catches, 421 yards, and one touchdown through eight games, the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner’s rookie campaign has been something less than explosive thus far. Yet Smith is playing with a young quarterback who is more replacement level than star, and for a first-year head coach with a work-in-progress scheme that seems hesitant to throw the ball in the middle of the field.
Meanwhile, his biggest enemy might actually be our expectations. Because even with all of the mitigating circumstances of life as an Eagle in 2021, Smith is putting up numbers that suggest big things lie ahead.
1. Smith could easily finish 2021 as the Eagles’ most productive rookie wide receiver of all time.
Granted, the Eagles haven’t exactly churned out Ring of Honor candidates at the position. Smith’s 421 yards already rank as the 12th most by a rookie receiver in franchise history. The top 10 include Jordan Matthews, Reggie Brown, Victor Bailey, and Hank Baskett. Not a lot of future Hall of Famers in that bunch.
Fact remains, only four players in franchise history have produced more receiving yards in the first eight games of their career, and two of them are tight ends. As it stands now, Smith is on pace to finish his first 16 games with 66 catches and 842 yards, putting him well within striking distance of DeSean Jackson’s franchise rookie record of 912 yards and Matthews’ rookie record of 67 catches. And, hey, he actually gets to play 17 games this season.
Again, we should note those numbers mostly serve to underscore how pitiful the Eagles have been at the wide receiver position. Also, in the interest of intellectual honesty, I suppose I’m obligated to point out that Travis Fulgham had 29 catches and 435 yards in five games last season, putting him in between Jackson and Smith on the through-eight-game leaderboard. But you’ll end up in a hospital if you spend too long trying to fit that into any sensible narrative, so we’ll just appreciate the outlier and never speak of it again.
2. Smith has more yards and catches in his first eight games than DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown, and Deebo Samuel.
As usual, some context is in order. Metcalf and Brown both made their early mark with explosive plays, Metcalf averaging 17.5 yards on 23 catches and Brown averaging 15.8 yards on 22 catches. Still, Smith’s production places him right where we should have expected him to be.
The only wide receiver ahead of him among this year’s class, the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase, was drafted five spots earlier. And, at the moment, Chase is on pace for one of the greatest receiving seasons among players of any age in NFL history. As for the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson, he and Smith do have something in common: They’re both better than Jalen Reagor!
3. Smith has been targeted just 13 times on third down and only twice in the red zone.
Here, we get back to the questions about quarterback, situation, and scheme. Jalen Hurts has attempted 32 passes in the red zone this season, which ranks 14th among NFL quarterbacks. Half of those 32 passes have gone to Zach Ertz, Kenneth Gainwell, or Dallas Goedert, resulting in five touchdowns. Hurts has targeted a wide receiver in the red zone exactly 11 times. On third down, the Eagles are 6-for-13 when they target Smith and 14-for-43 when they target anyone else.
Coming out of college, the big knock on Smith was that he did not have one of the elite physical tools that transcendent receivers tend to possess: size/strength, and vertical speed.
You can certainly point to his lack of a prototypical possession receiver’s stature as a factor in his disappearance inside the red zone. But it’s also fair to wonder whether his elite route-running skills would show up more in the box score with a different quarterback under center, or in a different scheme.
On the flip side, Smith was an appealing pick at No. 10 more because he was a safe pick at No. 10. What he lacked in game-breaking speed and overpowering stature, he made up for with his low floor. When you look at his eight-game start from that perspective, it’s hard to argue that the Eagles have gotten anything less than they’d hoped for.