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NFL draft: DeVonta Smith hopes to make case at Senior Bowl to be Dolphins' No. 3 overall pick

Eric Edholm
·8 min read
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Every year, there’s a Senior Bowl player who becomes the talk of Mobile, Alabama. The clear favorite this year appears to be Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, even if he doesn’t take a snap all week.

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

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Some might consider this 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.

It would appear Smith does not agree with this approach, despite his dominating the national title game in roughly one half’s work and becoming the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in nearly 30 years.

Smith seems like he wants to make a case for the Miami Dolphins to draft him No. 3 overall, even if the finger injury in the national title game will prevent him from taking part in the practices or the games.

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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 launched when Smith caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime of the 2017 national championship victory over Georgia, and it finished with a banner first half in this year’s 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.

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 scouting 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 has been 201.8 pounds.

Only 16 of those wide receivers have weighed in at 170 or less. Of those, the most successful NFL players have been DeSean Jackson and Marquise Brown. Both ended up top-50 selections, with Jackson sliding 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 draft, it would put him at about the 45th percentile for the position.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith had a ton of success in college, but he apparently wants to continue to boost his NFL draft stock at the Senior Bowl. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith had a ton of success in college, but he apparently wants to continue to boost his NFL draft stock at the Senior Bowl. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

In a year when there might not be a traditional combine, it 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 likely must put on 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.

Smith is a top prospect and prolific performer because he plays fast, possesses elite feel 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 athletes who have entered the draft with a frame and athleticism similar to Smith who bring 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 in the morning of Jan. 25 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 talent evaluators — although pandemic restrictions might alter the format this year — to 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? We’ll soon learn answers to those questions.

The case for Smith attending 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. 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 resumes next week when the Senior Bowl practices begin. The NFL’s other 30 teams will all be in attendance to watch and interview players.

And there will be no more 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 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)
Tua Tagovailoa (13) and DeVonta Smith 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.

Adding a three-level threat such as Smith makes 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. On targets 20-plus yards downfield in 2020, 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. Another is financial: The difference in salary between Miami’s No. 3 overall pick and, say, Carolina’s No. 8 pick could be more than $13 million.

Can Smith spending the week with Brian Flores and the Dolphins’ staff make the difference? It couldn’t hurt. It might even be a chance to start picking up some of the team’s offensive verbiage and bonding with Miami’s coaches.

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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