DeVonta Smith can win over Miami at Senior Bowl

Every year, there’s one Senior Bowl player who becomes the talk of Mobile, Ala. — both entering and coming out of one of the biggest NFL draft weeks on the calendar. The clear favorite this year appears to be Alabama WR DeVonta Smith.

On Monday, Smith accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl, which begins next week.

Some might consider this a bit of a surprise, as the top handful of seniors will often skip the game if they feel they have nothing to gain from competing in the week’s worth of practice followed by the game at week‘s end.

It would appear, despite Smith dominating the national-title game (despite playing roughly one half) after becoming the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in nearly 30 years, that he does not agree with this approach.

Smith seems like he wants to make a case for the Miami Dolphins to draft him No. 3 overall, even if questions about his health following a finger injury in the national title game will make us wonder how much he’ll be able to do in the practices.

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The knocks against Smith as a prospect

There will be questions about Smith as a prospect, despite the fact that he’s one of the most decorated college wideouts ever.

His career was launched when Smith caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime of the 2017 national title game over Georgia, and it finished with a banner first half in the championship win over Ohio State. In between, despite playing with one of the most talented WR groups ever assembled in 2018 and 2019, Smith set school records for catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

But Smith’s size and athletic testing numbers could create some scrutiny about whether he can be as effective in the NFL as he was in college.

Last spring, NFL scouts measured Smith at 6-foot 1/4 inch and 170 pounds. He also had 31 1/8-inch arms and 9 1/8-inch hands. All four numbers are considered below average, but the weight is the most concerning one.

Since the 1999 NFL combine, there have been nearly 900 attendees who were categorized as wide receivers — and no position seems to offer a wider range of shapes and sizes. But the average weight of combine wideouts over the past 20-plus years as been 201.8 pounds.

Only 16 of those wide receivers have weighed in at 170 pounds or less. Of those, the most successful NFL players have been DeSean Jackson and Marquise Brown. Both ended up top-50 selections, but Jackson slid to Round 2 and Brown went off the board with the 25th pick to the Baltimore Ravens.

Jackson ran a 4.35 40-yard dash when he came out in 2008. Brown was unable to run or work out at the combine in 2019 because he was recovering from a Lisfranc injury.

Smith almost certainly won’t run a Jackson-caliber 40. NFL scouts last year got a verified 40 time on Smith of 4.52 seconds. Should Smith run something similar before the 2021 NFL draft, it would put him at about the 45th percentile for the position.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith runs for a touchdown against Ohio State during the first half of an NCAA College Football Playoff national championship game, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

But in a year where there might not even be a traditional NFL combine at which to test, it certainly makes sense for Smith to double down on the part of his game where he thrives most: competing between the white lines.

There’s a belief in the scouting community that Smith is likely to have put on some weight since last spring, and he might even have grown a tiny amount (something around a quarter of an inch, we’re talking) even if he’s on the older side as a prospect, at 22 years old. There’s also a feeling that Smith could be able to better his spring speed time. Anything under a 4.5 should be considered a rousing success.

But what has made Smith a top prospect and prolific performer is that he plays fast, possesses elite feel for the game and can attack all three levels of the field. No workout or weigh-in — up to a certain point, anyway — should undercut those elements of his game.

There aren’t a whole lot of modern NFL specimens who have entered the draft with a frame and athletic traits similar to Smith and who bring the same level of rare, elite production. NFL teams always are leery of over-drafting “exceptions,” even if they always exist.

The most dramatic moment for Smith’s week likely will be early next Monday morning when the Senior Bowl conducts its official weigh-in. The players typically will walk shirtless across a stage in front of hundreds of scouts and NFL evaluators — although pandemic restrictions might alter the format this year — step on a scale and be measured.

Did Smith lose weight during a long college season that ended a mere week ago? Or will the number be a pleasant surprise for scouts who hope the number is closer to the 180s? And can Smith even catch the ball in practices or the game after suffering a pretty notable injury to his hand?

We’ll soon find out answers to all of those.

The case for Smith playing at the Senior Bowl

Joe Burrow passed on his Senior Bowl invitation last year, even though the Cincinnati Bengals held the No. 1 pick and were coaching the game a year ago. It didn’t prevent that marriage from happening.

This year’s game will be coached by the staffs of the Dolphins and Carolina Panthers. Miami owns Nos. 3 and 18 overall in Round 1, and Carolina is picking eighth. The more than 110 players on the two rosters will begin padding their resumés next week when the Senior Bowl practices begin.

And there will be no more potentially fascinating connection of player and team down there than Smith and the Dolphins.

Now that the Miami brass has said that Tua Tagovailoa will be the team’s starter in 2021, the Smith connection has a stronger link. Jerry Jeudy might have seen more targets from Tagovailoa over the two-plus years the three of them played together, but Smith always seemed to be the one Tua targeted in have-to-have it situations and in the biggest games.

Over the 2018 and 2019 seasons, when Smith and Jeudy were both healthy and Bama was facing ranked opponents, Smith had more targets (47 to 44), receptions (33 to 27), yards (563 to 435) and TD catches (5 to 4) than Jeudy, the 15th overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Smith was also the more reliable of the two in those games, too, hauling in a higher percentage of his targets (69.4 percent to 61.2 percent) and having fewer drops (2 to Jeudy’s seven).

Tua Tagovailoa (13) and DeVonta Smith (6) had a strong bond at Alabama and could continue it in the NFL. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Miami needs a wide receiver. DeVante Parker and Preston Williams are the big-bodied, big-play threats, but their week-in-week-out reliability factor hasn’t been ideal over the past few years. The Dolphins might have plans for players such as Jakeem Grant, Isaiah Ford, Lynn Bowden Jr., Mack Hollins, Malcolm Perry and even futures signing Kirk Merritt.

But adding a three-level threat such as Smith makes a lot of sense, especially with Tagovailoa the quarterback. The Dolphins always felt limited in the passing game once he took over as the starter; his long completion this season was 35 yards.

Some of that had to do with Williams and Parker missing time while Tagovailoa was starting. But some of that also had to do with the lack of a true deep threat or YAC threat.

That’s where Smith thrived this season especially. On targets 20-plus yards downfield this season, Smith caught 15 of 28 targets for an FBS-best 589 yards and eight TDs. He also led the country in yards per route run this season at 4.39 among receivers with 50 or more targets.

As long as the Dolphins believe Smith can get away from press coverage (which he did with ease more often than not in college), and assuming he performs well at the Senior Bowl, he has to be considered one of the favorites to land in the No. 3 overall slot.

Miami also could feature Smith in the slot. He didn’t line up there a lot this season (153 snaps, or about 36.2 percent of the time), but Smith absolutely thrived inside. On 59 targets out of the slot, Smith caught 46 passes for 863 yards with 12 TDs and one dropped pass.

A reunion with Tagovailoa is one reason why Smith might want to compete in Mobile. But another is financial: The difference in salary between Miami’s No. 3 overall pick and, say, Carolina’s No. 8 pick could be a difference of more than $13 million.

There’s always the risk of Smith getting hurt — or making his finger injury worse — at the Senior Bowl if he does perform down there. But he appears willing to risk it. Smith always has the option of pulling a Javon Kinlaw, who last year dominated the first day of practice and then bowed out. No one questioned why. And no one would if Smith did the same thing.

After all, simply attending the event has to send a message to the NFL that Smith loves to compete. If he didn’t love competition, he easily could have transferred away from Bama’s historically stacked WR group or bowed out of this game, especially with the injury.

But he’s headed to Mobile on a mission, and we suspect it’s with Miami on his mind.

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Published: 2021-01-18 19:09:19

Tags: #DeVonta #Smith #win #Miami #Senior #Bowl

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