NFL draft winners and losers: Even in another banner WR crop, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith deserves highest praise

Eric Edholm
·15 min read

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith figures to be one of the more debated receivers in the 2021 NFL draft class.

The 6-foot-1 Smith has a very lean frame at around 175 pounds. His speed might register closer to average than it will great. Smith has played alongside more gifted receivers at Alabama, too, including his current teammate, Jaylen Waddle, and last year’s two Crimson Tide first-rounders, Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy.

But what Smith has done, especially the past two seasons, shouldn’t go overlooked. Amid all the skill-position talent the Tide have fielded since Smith’s arrival in 2017, he’s managed to find ways to make his impact felt.

  • Catching the winning TD in overtime of the national title game as a freshman.

  • Leading Bama in catches in the two 2018 playoff games.

  • Leading a team with Ruggs, Jeudy and Waddle in receiving yards (1,256) and TDs (14) last season.

  • And so far in 2020, Smith has continued his brilliance. He leads the team in catches (38), receiving yards (483) and tied for the TD reception lead (4, along with Waddle).

DeVonta Smith continues to be a nightmare for opponents of Alabama. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
DeVonta Smith continues to be a nightmare for opponents of Alabama. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

Twice in a seven-day span, Smith caught 11 or more passes and passed the 160-yard receiving mark in wins over Ole Miss and Georgia. There have been only 14 other 11-catch performances in Bama history besides those, and Smith also had one against the Rebels in 2019 (11 catches, 274 yards and five TDs in that one).

Those three games with 11-plus catches are more than Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley had in their Bama careers — combined.

Come April, it would stun few draft observers if Waddle is taken ahead of Smith. After all, Waddle has game-changing speed and punt-return ability; he’s a yards-after-the-catch monster. In fact, it wouldn’t be shocking if multiple other receivers — namely LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman — also go before Smith is picked.

But NFL scouts will have to overlook Smith’s leaner build, and possibly his testing numbers (which could be middling) at the NFL scouting combine, and examine just how good of a football player he is.

More than once in the 41-27 win over Georgia, Smith made plays that absolutely will translate to the NFL level and that display just how exceptional of a competitor he is. His 17-yard touchdown catch to tie the game before halftime might have been his signature play on the drive — and he ran a pretty wheel route on it, too.

But Smith made two catches prior to that, both were big-time plays by an ultra-competitive, my-ball type of receiver.

The first was near the start of the second quarter when QB Mac Jones put a pass in harm’s way, but watch as Smith works back toward the ball to prevent an interception — and make a great catch with Georgia CB Tyrique Stevenson right there:

Watch as Smith comes back for the ball to break up a potential INT and haul in the pass vs. Georgia.
Watch as Smith comes back for the ball to break up a potential INT and haul in the pass vs. Georgia.

Later in the quarter, Smith helped set up the TD with a huge conversion on third-and-9. Watch here as Smith came back for ball (again) with Jones buying time. Smith just shakes CB Tyson Campbell (a possible top-50 pick) to make the big grab:

Smith also came back to the ball for this crucial catch, which set up his own TD grab.
Smith also came back to the ball for this crucial catch, which set up his own TD grab.

I’ve considered other NFL player comps for Smith before, not quite loving any of them. But didn’t that remind you a little like Chad Johnson?

That’s the same energy with which Smith plays, and like Johnson (the 36th overall pick in 2001) when he came out, Smith won’t win over the hearts and minds of every NFL team that scouts him. But the one that eventually drafts Smith, we suspect, will be pleased with the return on investment for a player who isn’t guaranteed to be a first-rounder.

WINNERS

The 2021 QB class

Trevor Lawrence is the bell cow. Trey Lance is very well-regarded by NFL scouts. Justin Fields gets his season started this week. We’ve known about the top of this QB class for some time, and nothing has changed their standing to date.

But the next wave of prospects has started to rise.

BYU’s Zach Wilson, of whom we’re big fans, is working his way into the first-round discussion after another brilliant game Friday night.

Bama’s Mac Jones has improved his stock as much as anyone at this spot, overcoming a rough start Saturday and taking a pounding to deliver some big-time throws.

Florida’s Kyle Trask has not at all disappointed and is trending toward a top-50 spot, and perhaps even a Round 1 pick.

Pitt’s Kenny Pickett was having a strong season before an ankle injury kept him out of Saturday’s game, and we’re not at all bailing on him yet.

There are also fans of Texas’ Sam Ehlinger and Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond to be found out there.

A slew of others — Memphis’ Brady White, SMU’s Shane Buechele, and even (yes) Arkansas’ Feleipe Franks — turned in good performances this weekend.

Even with disappointing developments, such as K.J. Costello’s one-hit wonder, D’Eriq King’s up-and-down passing season, Brock Purdy’s inconsistencies and a few more underwhelming starts to the season, it’s still shaping up as a stronger class now than it did over the summer.

Two other Alabama studs

RB Najee Harris continues to earn Derrick Henry comps — for good reason.

To me, they’re not exact clones. But Harris’ determination as a runner is a truly special trait, and he’s rounded off his game with better decision-making in the hole, more wiggle in space and continued improvement as a receiver.

Harris might not be the monster in the NFL that Henry has become, but they can win in similar ways. Although Harris entered the season with mainly third-round grades from evaluations, I have to think that’s been improved on.

Alabama's Najee Harris, left, made hay against a good Georgia Bulldogs defense on Saturday. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Alabama's Najee Harris, left, made hay against a good Georgia Bulldogs defense on Saturday. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

After a five-TD, 201-yard rushing game against Ole Miss, the holes were not quite as gaping vs. Georgia. But Harris still rumbled his way to a game-changing 152 yards on 31 carries and a score. He ran with fury in this crucial game, and we suspect with some anger over losing his first career fumble (in 556 career touches) the week prior.

But Harris wasn’t doing it alone. Time after time, he seemed to be gaining ground behind the open-field blocker of LT Alex Leatherwood.

The 6-6, 312-pound Leatherwood was good but not always great last season. Chatter in scouting circles this summer centered around whether Leatherwood was an NFL left tackle — or perhaps better off at guard.

But the way he moved and blocked Saturday, that line of thinking might be starting to shift. Leatherwood was outstanding against Ole Miss and was almost to that level of performance vs. a better Georgia front. He led the way on the outside zone series they hammered with Harris all night and was just very impressive.

Leatherwood’s athleticism could be called into question the closer we get to the draft, especially if he ends up an average combine tester. But it looked more than functional on Saturday, and the remainder of his traits — physicality, length and hand work — make him an alluring prospect.

Florida State DT Marvin Wilson

After a strong opening-game performance, Wilson has had an up-and-down start to his final season, having been ejected from the Miami game and turning in a very quiet performance against Notre Dame.

But on Saturday, in the Seminoles’ upset of North Carolina, Wilson played like his hair was on fire. The 6-5, 305-pounder blocked a first-quarter punt (!) and registered four pressures, per Pro Football Focus. And even on plays where he didn’t register a statistic, Wilson was wreaking havoc up front.

Where Wilson made his impact felt most, though, was on the final four plays on defense as FSU desperately clung to a 31-28 lead.

  • First-and-10 from the FSU 42, 1:22 remaining — Wilson tackles RB Michael Carter for a 1-yard gain.

  • Second-and-9 from the FSU 41, 0:55 remaining — pressure by Wilson on QB Sam Howell’s incomplete pass.

  • Third-and-9 from the FSU 41, 0:48 remaining — QB hit by Wilson on incomplete pass.

  • Fourth-and-9 from the FSU 41, 0:44 remaining — Wilson pressure forced Howell to move to his left and throw off-balance on the incomplete pass.

And that was the ballgame. On his 53rd, 54th, 55th and 56th snaps of the game, Wilson saved his best for last in a signature win for FSU head coach Mike Novell.

Norvell reportedly had a man-to-man chat with WR Tamorrion Terry a few weeks ago after his own slow start to the season, and it led to Terry breaking out with a big game against Notre Dame. Perhaps Norvell did the same for Wilson? Either way, it was a noticeable uptick in performance and effort.

Even with a roughing-the-passer flag against Wilson in the first half, with UNC scoring on the next play, it felt like a ticky-tack penalty to us; we’re not holding that one against him too much. There also were a few tackle attempts that slipped through his paws.

But overall, the potential top-50 pick was superb when he had to be.

Two South Carolina playmakers

CB Jaycee Horn has been a favorite of ours, and WR Shi Smith absolutely has grown on us the more we’ve watched.

Both were outstanding on Saturday.

Horn and Auburn WR Seth Williams were locked in a phenomenal mano a mano battle, and Williams got him a few times, catching three passes for 63 yards. (PFF charted Horn allowing Williams two catches for 55 yards.) Horn also was flagged for a hold, plus another penalty that was declined.

But he was targeted 10 times in the game, registering a stunning five passes defended and the first two interceptions of his college career, the second of which he ran back 34 yards to set up a touchdown that kept the Gamecocks up for good. One of those passes deflected ended up being picked by his teammate, and Horn was inches away from another INT on a 44-yard catch by Williams.

With fellow draft prospect Israel Mukuama out for this game, Horn (the son of former NFL receiver Joe Horn) was on an island vs. Williams — and Horn responded by playing the best individual game of his career, even with a few plays that went against him.

In our eyes, this press-man corner might not be a huge tester. But teams that value length, toughness and man-coverage ability will be considering him in that late first-round or early second-round range and be happy about it.

Smith was receiving fifth- and sixth-round grades this summer, which felt right considering his body of work to that point. But to this point of the season, we’re tickled with what we’ve seen from him.

Smith’s stat line against Auburn was good — eight catches, 76 yards and the go-ahead TD — but the eye test was even more complimentary to his work. He also drew two pass-interference calls and hauled in catch after tough catch in a showcase performance.

That’s now three out of four games this season for Smith, and he’s on pace for career highs in receptions, yards and TDs. The touchdown displayed great concentration and timing:

But this next grab, to convert a huge third down in the fourth quarter, was even more impressive:

Smith’s size (5-10, 190 pounds) and inconsistent hands (five drops this season, one on Saturday) will be held against him in his final eval. But there’s some real magic in his game that’s hard to ignore. We’d love him as a WR3 in an NFL offense.

LOSERS

QB Jamie Newman

All I could think, watching 5-11, 190-pound Georgia QB Stetson Bennett IV vary wildly in his performance against Bama was … what could Newman have done with this opportunity?

It’s not a fair question, honestly, because we don’t truly know exactly why Newman left Wake Forest for Georgia this offseason and then later opted out, other than for the COVID-related reasons he stated at the time. If that by itself is truly why he opted out, then all due respect to him.

But down to brass tacks, it doesn’t mean his decision will help his NFL draft cause in the end.

Some scouts have wondered whether Newman felt he had more to lose by staying and potentially not winning the starting job initially, or perhaps losing it if he had started slowly. Agent pressure might also have contributed to Newman’s decision to declare early without the benefit of another season.

But from a draft perspective, Newman’s stock is hardly rock-solid. He’s a talented kid, no doubt, but not one without warts either. Had he played — and played well — this season with a talented Georgia team that has plus-level talent at running back and receiver, not to mention the offensive line, Newman could have locked up a top-64 spot.

Now? I am not at all convinced of that.

Over the summer, we spoke to teams with grades in the fourth-to-sixth-round range. Is training privately going to change that? Hard to say; we’re in uncharted waters with this draft cycle (again).

But I can’t help but think that Newman has missed out on the chance to help his draft standing, even if the reasons for him opting out were entirely noble or reasonable.

Georgia CB Tyson Campbell

As we wrote pregame, Campbell is regarded by some NFL teams as the most talented member of an extremely gifted and deep Bulldogs secondary. He has the pedigree, the talent and the athletic frame to be an excellent NFL DB.

But Campbell struggled mightily at times against Bama’s gifted receivers, some of which we highlighted above. His stumble on Waddle’s 90-yard touchdown catch was an unfortunate play and a tough one to harp on, as things like that can happen when you’re singled up on a blazer of a receiver in that situation.

All Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell, right, could do was watch after he fell down and Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle ran for a 90-yard touchdown catch. (Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports)
All Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell, right, could do was watch after he fell down and Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle ran for a 90-yard touchdown catch. (Gary Cosby Jr/The Tuscaloosa News via USA TODAY Sports)

Campbell also was beaten by Smith multiple times, allowing him five catches that generated first downs. For all of Campbell’s physical traits, we sometimes feel like his coverage feel and ball skills are average. It’s sort of the same concerns that knocked Alabama CB Trevon Diggs down from a potential first-round pick to the 51st overall selection in the spring.

Campbell plays with intensity, and his traits are just too enticing to see him falling far. But there are enough mistakes in his game for us to wonder just how high he’ll eventually go.

Pitt C Jimmy Morrissey

Morrissey has appeal as a draft prospect, bringing extensive experience (more than 3,000 career snaps) at a position that isn’t as easy to fill as some would believe. He’s a smart, patient blocker with decent size and good snap-to-snap consistency.

Entering the season with mostly Day 3 grades, Morrissey hasn’t done enough to this point of the season in our eyes to change that. His physical limitations — average athletic traits and length — will always be prohibitive. But his pass-protection ability this season has been a bit disappointing, even with Pitt needing to go to its backup QB on Saturday with Kenny Pickett (ankle) out.

It’s hard to know on whom the blame should be placed for some of the interior pressure the Panthers have allowed in recent weeks. But on Saturday, Miami DLs Jordan Miller, Jared Harrison-Hunte and Nesta Jade Silvera all registered interior pressures. Miller walked back Morrissey for a first-quarter sack, although QB Joey Yellen certainly held onto the ball for a bit on the play.

Morrissey showed some nice toughness and versatility by kicking over to right guard two weeks ago against Boston College, and his smarts will be valued well to a certain degree by NFL teams. But there just appears to be a clear ceiling on his potential, profiling as somewhere between a solid backup and a low-end NFL starter.

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