2021 NFL draft: Can Alabama's DeVonta Smith, aka 'Slim Reaper,' thrive at 170 pounds?

Eric Edholm
·9 min read

Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, which starts April 29, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down in groups of five for Nos. 100-51, followed by more in-depth reports on our top 50 players, with help from our scouting assistant, Liam Blutman. We reserve the right to make changes to players’ grades and evaluations based on injury updates, pro-day workouts or late-arriving information from NFL teams.

Other prospect rankings: Nos. 100-96 | 95-91 | 90-86 | 85-81 | 80-76 | 75-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. OT Liam Eichenberg | 49. WR Terrace Marshall Jr. | 48. LB Chazz Surratt | 47. EDGE Joe Tryon | 46. OT-OG Alex Leatherwood | 45. CB Asante Samuel Jr. | 44. DL Levi Onwuzurike | 43. LB Jabril Cox | 42. DT Daviyon Nixon | 41. EDGE Ronnie Perkins | 40. LB Nick Bolton | 39. CB Ifeatu Melifonwu | 38. WR Elijah Moore | 37. OT Jalen Mayfield | 36. EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. | 35. CB Elijah Molden | 34. RB Travis Etienne | 33. WR Kadarius Toney | 32. EDGE Jayson Oweh | 31. LB Zaven Collins | 30. DT Christian Barmore | 29. QB Mac Jones | 28. CB Caleb Farley | 27. RB Javonte Williams | 26. C-OG Landon Dickerson | 25. S Trevon Moehrig | 24. CB Greg Newsome II | 23. WR Rashod Bateman | 22. EDGE Greg Rousseau | 21. OT Christian Darrisaw | 20. RB Najee Harris | 19. LB-S Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah | 18. EDGE Jaelan Phillips | 17. OT Teven Jenkins | 16. EDGE Kwity Paye | 15. CB Jaycee Horn | 14. OT-OG Rashawn Slater | 13. OG-OT Alijah Vera-Tucker | 12. WR DeVonta Smith | 11. EDGE Azeez Ojulari | 10. CB Patrick Surtain II | 9. OT Penei Sewell | 8. QB Zach Wilson | 7. LB Micah Parsons | 6. QB Trey Lance | 5. WR Jaylen Waddle | 4. QB Justin Fields | 3. WR Ja'Marr Chase | 2. TE Kyle Pitts | 1. QB Trevor Lawrence

Here's how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Here's how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

12. Alabama WR DeVonta Smith

6-foot, 170 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 6.12 — possible immediate starter

TL;DR scouting report: Ultra-lean big-play machine whose size and strength concerns shouldn’t prevent him from winning in the NFL

Games watched: Georgia (2020), Tennessee (2020), Texas A&M (2020), Notre Dame (2020)

The skinny: A 4-star Rivals recruit (No. 46 nationally), Smith spurned Georgia to attend Bama. 

He played in all 14 games in 2017 as a true freshman and caught eight passes for 160 yards and three TDs — the last of which beat Georgia in the national championship game in overtime. 

In 2018, Smith caught 42 passes for 693 yards and six TDs in 14 games (10 starts). He led a receiving corps that featured four potential first-round draft picks in 2019 with 68 catches for 1,256 yards and 14 TDs in 13 games, including a school-record 274-yard, five-TD effort vs. Ole Miss, earning second-team AP All-America and second-team all-SEC.

Smith returned to school in 2020 and turned in perhaps the greatest ever statistical season of a college receiver. He caught 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 TDs, leading the nation in all three categories. He also ran for a touchdown, returned four kickoffs for 52 yards and returned 11 punts for 237 yards and a TD. Smith won a slew of awards — the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and Walter Camp Player of the Year — and was named first-team AP All-America, first-team all-conference and SEC Offensive Player of the Year. He was MVP of the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Notre Dame and suffered a finger injury in the national title win over Ohio State. The injury forced Smith to miss the 2021 Senior Bowl.

Upside: Exceptional route runner. Gets off the line as well as any receiver in the country and accelerates to top gear quickly. Smooth, fluid, deceptive and sudden in his approach. Quick change-of-direction skills. Beats press with burst off the line, quick hands and savvy body lean.

Outstanding at coming back for the football — a quarterback’s security blanket. Sells the deep route, slams on the brakes and works back quickly. Gains easy separation. Uses tempo to lull corners to sleep and then does a fly-by. Plays fast and has big-play ability — 44 receptions of 15 or more yards last season alone.

Three-level threat — can burn a defense short, intermediate or deep. Lined up progressively more in the slot the past two seasons and was terrific there — could be foreshadowing for his NFL usage. Carved up man and zone coverages. Scheme-versatile receiver who has a home in every NFL offense.

Utterly absurd production the past two seasons — was the most productive member of a Bama WR corps that will end up having four first-rounders. Over his past 26 games: 185 receptions, 3,112 yards, 37 receiving TDs, plus a rushing TD and a punt-return TD. Six games with 11-plus catches in that span. Twelve games in that span with 130 or more receiving yards. Eleven multi-TD games, too. Thrived after Jaylen Waddle’s injury despite more defensive attention.

Alabama WR DeVonta Smith might not be big, but his separation ability is above reproach. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Alabama WR DeVonta Smith might not be big, but his separation ability is above reproach. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Outstanding hands — snags anything in his frame. Soft mitts to haul in passes easily and become an instant YAC threat. Can take a hit at the catch point and hang on — also good hand strength. Quality ball tracking on deep balls, especially adjusting to underthrown passes.

Superb body control — can contort to grab off-target throws and pluck balls off the grass. Great sideline awareness and foot control — can be seen getting two feet in already with the NFL in mind. Made some highlight-reel grabs. Routinely makes the first man miss after the catch.

Flashes on special teams in small sample size — picked up punt-return duties after Jaylen Waddle got hurt and looked like a natural. Also saw some reps as a gunner on the punt-coverage team and looked to have a knack for it.

Wired differently — possesses elite determination. Elite football character. Carries himself like a perpetual underdog. Businesslike approach to the grind. Toughness belies his size. Sincerely loves football and gives all-out commitment to the game. Rare two-time captain under Nick Saban.

Downside: Unusually small-framed receiver with birdlike legs. Weighed 170 pounds at his pro day and 166 at combine medical recheck. Lean, wiry frame with little capacity to pack on much additional weight — possible injury concern over time. Limited length, too — middling arm length (31 1/8 inches) and wingspan (78 1/4 inches). Smaller hands (9 1/4 inches).

Can be battled by bigger, more physical corners — especially in press coverage. Will be bodied and run out of bounds on outside releases. Loses some battles at the catch point — can’t always box out on deep balls. Play strength will always be a shortcoming despite his toughness. Might not be able to win quite as frequently on the outside in the NFL. Gives effort as an undersized blocker but can’t always make hay.

Beefed up his production with a steady diet of high-percentage throws — screens, drags and darts. Lined up surrounded by elite talent at QB, on the offensive line, at receiver and in the backfield. Operated in a terrific environment with friendly coverages and great play design where someone was always open.

Didn’t run or test pre-draft and likely would have been an average timer in some regards. Play speed makes up for it, but not a true vertical burner. Was guilty of some concentration drops early in his career.

Hot-under-the-collar play style ran over a few times — tried to punch Texas A&M safety Leon O’Neal in 2019 and was ejected after O’Neal (who was not ejected) took the first swing at Smith. Suffered some early growing pains at Alabama but by most accounts solved any immaturity issues that he might have had. Suspended for the first quarter of the 2019 opener, reportedly after missing a team meeting.

Best-suited destination: Smith’s dizzyingly consistent production the past two seasons on the most talented WR group in the country should give most evaluators some level of assurance that he can thrive in the NFL despite ideal size.

Perhaps that means more snaps in the slot or using motion to give him cleaner releases. But other than that concern, Smith’s tape shows the confidence of a possible WR1 in time who can be an early contributor and also add some punt-return ability to virtually any NFL team.

Did you know: Smith, aka “The Slim Reaper,” referenced his lack of size in his Heisman Trophy-winning speech. Although it didn’t resonate the way Joe Burrow’s did the year prior, Smith delivered a heartfelt message about his journey as the Little Engine That Could.

“And to all the young kids out there that’s not the biggest, not the strongest, just keep pushing,” Smith said. “Because I’m not the biggest, 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, just believe in God and you’ll get where you want to be.”

Player comp: There simply haven’t been too many 6-foot, 170-ish-pound receivers to populate the NFL in recent years — Steve Breaston? Bernard Berrian? Mario Manningham? — so there aren’t many apples-to-apples comparisons.

Marvin Harrison has been a popular comp for Smith, and it makes a lot of sense. We also would throw the name Isaac Bruce out there. Smith’s NFL career could mirror Bruce’s early-career production where he flashes as a rookie but really rounds into form as a top receiver in Year 2, similar to how Smith broke out at Alabama.

Expected draft range: Top-20 pick

More from Yahoo Sports:

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.