DENVER — The play put all of DeVonta Smith’s considerable skills, the attributes that might yet make him the best Eagles wide receiver in a generation, on display. He had run a perfect route to counteract the Denver Broncos’ Cover-2 defense, slanting inside then breaking sharply toward the sideline, angling away from the line of scrimmage. He was open often Sunday, and he was open again here, on a third down-and-9 for the Eagles.
But Jalen Hurts, who made few mistakes in the Eagles’ 30-13 win here at Empower Field at Mile High, made one here. His throw was late, giving Broncos rookie cornerback Pat Surtain II — Smith’s teammate at Alabama — time to slide in front of the receiver. The pass hit Surtain in the hands, a certain interception, yes? No. Smith, giving away two inches in height to the 6-foot-2 Surtain, jumped and batted the football out of his friend’s grasp. The Eagles avoided a costly turnover and instead punted the ball on fourth down. It was a small yet essential victory in their bigger one.
“That was some of the DB skills right there,” Smith said. “When you see him sinking, see he has a chance to make a play, you just have to go up there and do what you can.”
Sunday was Smith’s 23rd birthday, and though there was no celebrating after he broke up that potential pick by Surtain, he made up for it throughout the rest of the game. He had four catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns, the first of which came on a play similar to the near-interception … except Smith leaped over Surtain in the end zone to haul in a 36-yard score from Hurts. It was a spectacular catch, made all the more impressive because Surtain had more than a size advantage on Smith. He had inside leverage, was in better position to make a play on the ball, and Smith’s left arm was encased in a long, black brace to protect his elbow, which he had injured days earlier.
“Sometimes you say about a guy, ‘He’s just a good football player,’” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said. “Growing up in a coach’s house, that was the ultimate compliment. I’m going to say a name: Ron Snyder. He was a quarterback for Southwestern High School. ‘Man, he’s just a good football player.’ [Smith is] just a good football player. He’s longer than you think, too. I know what his height is, but he’s got long arms. He’s just a good football player. He went up and got it.”
When you’re looking for players who could serve as points of comparison for Smith, a left-handed quarterback who starred in the mid-1980s for a high school in Jamestown, N.Y. — Sirianni’s hometown — probably isn’t the first one who comes to mind. It wouldn’t have come to mind for Snyder himself, either. Reached by phone Sunday night, he had no idea that Sirianni, whose father, Fran, had been Snyder’s high school coach, had paid him a public compliment. “Is that right?” he said. “This is really quite a surprise.” But if he was every bit the gamer, the kind of guy who just had it, as Sirianni described him to be, then Snyder might be a better corollary than some of the wide receivers the Eagles have drafted in the first and second rounds over their history. Just scan the names.
Sure, there was DeSean Jackson in 2008 and Jeremy Maclin in 2009, and Nelson Agholor had that excellent 2017 season, and Todd Pinkston was a decent deep threat for Donovan McNabb for a while. But for every one of those relative standouts, there’s Jalen Reagor or Reggie Brown or Freddie Mitchell or Kenny Jackson.
Through 10 games, Smith’s numbers — 42 catches, 603 yards, four touchdowns — put him on pace for a season that would rank with the best of any of them. The manner in which he combines his physical gifts and technical proficiency — the precision with which he runs his routes, his work ethic — gives him the appearance on the field of a veteran, and it earns him the same respect that a more experienced player would enjoy. His second touchdown Sunday, a 5-yard catch on which he shed Broncos cornerback Kyle Fuller on a clean, crisp slant route, was an indication of that second quality. It doesn’t go too far to say that Smith could yet become the finest wide receiver the Eagles have drafted in the first round, or perhaps any round, since Mike Quick in 1982.
“I get more comfortable every week,” said DeVonta Smith, newly 23, after a two-touchdown, big-play birthday, with so much still ahead of him.