5 reasons to worry about Alabama Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith's outlook in NFL draft
Let's not get it twisted: Alabama star DeVonta Smith is going to be a first-round pick and might become an NFL star.
Let's also take a deep breath in the wake of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner's record-setting performance in Monday's night's national championship game victory over Ohio State.
Yes, Smith burned the Buckeyes for a CFP title game record 12 receptions in little more than a half. He likely would have rewritten the record book had he been able to add to his 215 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He was sensational and obviously deserving of the game's offensive MVP honors.
Should the New York Jets now consider him with the No. 2 pick of the 2021 draft? No way. Should Smith even be a top-10 pick? Let me just say this: I'd have significant reservations about that level of investment if I were in an NFL general manager's seat. (I know, I know ... I'm not.)
Smith is obviously a dynamic player. You don't become the first receiver to win the Heisman in 30 years – the Biletnikoff Award (best college receiver) and Maxwell Award are also among his hardware haul – while lighting the Southeastern Conference on fire if you're not. You don't set conference career (3,965 receiving yards) and single-season (1,856 receiving yards, 23 TDs) records if you're not.
His ability break off chunks of yards in open space and make spectacular catches on the boundaries should certainly translate to the NFL.
But now I'm obligated to do what happens in the build-up to every draft: nitpick very talented players in the context of pro projections:
These are five reasons I'd worry about the relative impact Smith will make in the NFL:
Smith clearly has more than sufficient speed to succeed at the next level and appears to effortlessly glide past college defenders. Does he have elite burst? Not sure. The Tyreek Hill comparisons I've heard make my head explode. This isn't to shade Smith as a prospect, but let's not assume he's going to blow through NFL secondaries or have the same effectiveness in short areas against pro defenses.
Smith, listed 6-1 and 175 pounds by Alabama, pretty obviously needs to add a few pounds, and a pro strength program will help. Still, it boggled my mind how many free releases he exploits – especially those granted by Ohio State, which even tried covering him with a linebacker. I would expect Jalen Ramsey, Xavien Howard, Tre'Davious White and much less accomplished NFL corners to be constantly bullying Smith with jams off the line, hindering him from getting into the routes he runs so well but seemingly did so often free of charge at Alabama.
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I was opining last night about how much NFL punishment Smith will be able to absorb when – boom – he was out of the game. In fairness, his hand/finger injury looked pretty fluky and apparently isn't serious. Still, I have to wonder how many of these crossing routes – where Smith rolled so well for the Tide – you'll want him running in proximity to next-level linebackers and safeties.
4. Alabama's history
Will playing for the Tide work against Smith? He's been one component of maybe the greatest fleet of college receivers ever assembled. Remember, 'Bama sent Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy into the first round last year. Smith and Jaylen Waddle are set to follow. And yet the way Smith is being portrayed today in some circles, you'd think he's the second coming of Julio Jones in terms of impact. He most definitely is not.
Smith might be Calvin Ridley 2.0, but Ridley has been quite the beneficiary of playing opposite Jones in Atlanta. With contextual apologies to Don Hutson, Amari Cooper is really the only other top-tier receiver to emerge from Tuscaloosa ... and I seriously doubt Cooper or Ridley would be consensus top-10 selections in most "re-draft" scenarios. And though it's way too early to offer concrete NFL assessments of Jeudy or Ruggs, it's fair to say they were OK as rookies in 2020 – however Justin Jefferson, Chase Claypool, Tee Higgins and CeeDee Lamb were definitively better.
5. Batman or Robin?
Last, how quickly we forget. The 2019 Biletnikoff winner, Ja'Marr Chase of LSU, will also be in the upcoming draft after opting out of the 2020 season. He had 20 touchdown catches (the SEC record Smith just broke) in 2019 among his 84 catches and 1,780 yards. By most accounts – including Tigers teammates I talked to at the 2020 NFL scouting combine – Chase played LSU's Batman role to Jefferson's Robin.
Jefferson? He just amassed 1,400 receiving yards for the Vikings, most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). And maybe he'll be a better pro than Chase or Smith. But conventional wisdom just a year ago is that Chase probably would have been the first receiver drafted in 2020, and that will very likely hold true in 2021.
Maybe the Dolphins should consider Smith with the third overall pick. He could slide into a No. 2 role opposite DeVante Parker and brings inherent Crimson chemistry with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
But if I'm another receiver-needy team picking in the top half of the first round – Jets (No. 2), Eagles (No. 6), Lions (No. 7), Giants (No. 11) or Patriots (No. 15) – then I'm definitely sending up the Bat signal.
I'd like to end where I began, expressing admiration for Smith's game, not to mention his persona. I'm not the first – nor will I be the last – to scrutinize his draft outlook. He's heard it all before and will get the last word, much like the one he expressed after earning the Heisman.
"I'm not the biggest," he said. "I've been doubted a lot just because of my size. And really, it just comes down to, you put your mind to it, you can do it. No job is too big. If you put your mind to it, you can do it."
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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