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The Slim Reaper Rises: How Smith Became the Star Attraction at the Senior Bowl

By: Nicholas McGee

DeVonta Smith could hardly have done more to impress NFL talent scouts during the 2020 season.

Entering the year, the Alabama wide receiver was considered one of the better players at the position in the prospective 2021 draft class. But there were concerns that he possessed a leaner frame than most starting wideouts.

The man who has come to be known as ‘The Slim Reaper’ dispelled those doubts in emphatic fashion. Smith became the first receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 to win the Heisman Trophy, serving as the star playmaker for the Crimson Tide as they steamrolled their way to the national championship.   

Smith runs after a catch during the national championship game against Ohio State. (Perry Knotts via AP)

Smith finished a spectacular year with 117 receptions, 1,856 receiving yards and 24 total touchdowns. He capped his campaign with an extraordinary performance in the title game, catching 12 passes for 215 yards and three scores – all in the first half of Alabama’s 52-24 rout of Ohio State. He missed the second half due to a dislocated finger.

It marked the third time that Smith recorded 200-plus receiving yards and three-plus touchdown catches in the 2020 season, tying Davante Adams (2013) for the most such games by any FBS player in any of the last 25 seasons.

Despite those achievements, Smith still decided he needed to do more and subsequently accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. This week, a collection of the top college seniors will practice and compete in front of NFL decision-makers in an attempt to further improve their draft stock.

Smith will not be able to take part in any on-field drills because of his finger injury, but he could vault himself from a potential top-10 pick to a top-five contender with strong interviews with team officials.

What are the traits that will have teams wanting to get in the same room as Smith? Here we look at the numbers from Smith’s incredible college career to analyze his strengths.

Strong hands

Extraordinary catches have become a trademark of Smith’s game. He possesses outstanding body control to make acrobatic receptions near the sideline.

He has the ability to elevate and attack the ball at its highest point, with his concentration at the catch point reflected by his lack of dropped passes during his Alabama career.

In 2020, he was targeted 147 times, 42 more than any other Power 5 receiver, and dropped only three passes. Over the course of his college career (2017-20), he was targeted 315 times and dropped only seven passes.

Simply put, the metrics reflect Smith’s value to his signal-callers at Alabama.

Smith (6) scores in the first half of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File)

A quarterback’s best friend

Smith has frequently proven himself as someone able to create separation. He boasts the route-running ability to get free of coverage and give his quarterbacks open windows to throw into.

In fact, Smith ranked sixth among Power 5 receivers that average 10-plus yards per target with an 86.4 open percentage.

When targeting Smith, Alabama QBs posted a passer rating of 237.3 in 2020, second in college football behind only Western Michigan’s D’Wayne Eskridge (238.3), who played six games to Smith’s 13.

Between 2017 and 2020, Alabama QBs had a 227.7 passer rating when targeting Smith – better than any other player in the country during that span.

Smith is a receiver who makes life easy on his quarterbacks and elevates their level of performance. One of the key ways in which he does that is through an innate ability to gain yardage after the catch.

BURNING it up

A lack of speed was one of the criticisms aimed at Smith going into 2020, and it is another he disproved throughout the season.

Smith may not have the evident instant burst of former teammate and 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs III, but he picks up speed in a smooth manner, often appearing effortless in gliding past defenders. 

Smith is arguably the best all-around WR in this year’s NFL draft class. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

His combination of acceleration, vision and elusiveness in the open field enabled Smith to average 8.3 yards after catch per reception, 10th in the nation. Looking at his production over his entire Crimson Tide career, Smith’s average of 9.0 YAC per reception is first in college football since 2017.

The Slim Reaper also led all Power 5 wideouts in burns (111), burn touchdowns (26) and burn yards (2,069). He was dominant in these categories, finishing with 12 more burn TDs, 43 more burns and 619 more burn yards than the next-best WR. Remarkably, he ended up with more burns than any other Power 5 receiver was targeted.

There may still be some who question his slight 175-pound frame, yet Smith has demonstrated against the highest level of college competition that he is a supremely well-rounded receiver.

With his superb mix of talents, expect Smith’s interview schedule in Mobile to be an extremely crowded one.

 

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