Nick Sirianni says DeVonta Smith may be better than expected

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Smith better than advertised in Roob's 10 observations from rookie camp originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Nick Sirianni’s first practice as head coach was open to the media for about 25 minutes, more than half of which was taken up with stretching and the rest with some rudimentary individual drills.

So we’re not quite ready to say who can play and who can’t play. That will have to wait.

But it was still an interesting day, our first chance to see DeVonta Smith and our first opportunity to see Nick Sirianni as a head coach.

Here are 10 observations from a small snippet of the Eagles' first practice of the Nick Sirianni Era:

1. All eyes were on Smith, and while we didn’t get to see him run any catch any passes from Jamie Newman, the only quarterback in camp this weekend, he looked smooth, fast and athletic running a few individual drills (despite one early drop). He seemed engaged and energetic and got some 1-on-1 coaching from Sirianni, who said after practice Smith does some things better than he realized: “As advertised, he catches everything. That ball touches his hands, he catches it. He’s really long. You guys saw that. He’s got long arms and he’s got a big catch radius. You just don’t know exactly what (you have). You have a really good idea of what you have, but when you get him on the field then you’re just like, ‘Man, we can do this, we can do that, maybe he can do this (and) this (that) maybe we didn’t think he could do.’ He showed his length, he showed his unbelievable hands and he showed I just thought excellent, excellent ability to change directions at the top of his route, even better than we saw on tape, to be honest.” Going to be fun watching this kid at training camp, when they’re not allowed to kick us out after 20 minutes. 

2. Interesting to see veteran safety Obi Melifonwu at practice Friday. Melifonwu - who is 6-4 and wearing jersey No. 33 - is hard to miss. The 27-year-old Melifonwu is here on a tryout basis, but he’s an interesting name. He was highly considered enough to be the Raiders’ 2nd-round pick in 2017 but only played in five games with the Raiders and then two in 2018 with the Patriots. He spent 2019 on the Patriots’ practice squad and was out of football in 2020. The 49ers signed him to a futures contract this past January and then released him a couple weeks ago. Considering the Eagles’ situation at safety, can’t hurt to take a look.

3. Landon Dickerson was in uniform and out with the offensive linemen working with Jeff Stoutland, which was encouraging considering it was only five months ago that he tore his left ACL during Alabama’s win over Florida in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. Sirianni said Dickerson is only participating in walkthroughs at this point and there’s no timetable on when he might be cleared to be a full participant, but just seeing him out there in a helmet and uniform jogging around and taking part in everything was a good sign.

4. Was notable that the rookies spent nearly 15 minutes before practice going through a structured stretching and agility routine. The Doug Pederson Eagles stretched before practice, but this was a longer and more varied regimen, which makes sense considering the insane rash of injuries that has decimated the roster over the past three years. Will more stretching help the Eagles avoid injuries? Who knows. But it can’t hurt.

5. Sirianni outlined his expectations for the 26 rookies and assorted first-year pros and tryout players who are here, and he emphasized that he told his assistant coaches he wants everything kept simple so they all have a chance to show what they can do: “We set some goals for them and it was really to go out there and compete, to learn the offense, defense and special teams, to get 1 percent better every day, to connect with their teammates and the fifth goal that we set for them was go out and show us what you can do. That was the main message, go out and show them what you can do. The message to the coaching staff was, ‘Let’s let these guys go out there and show us what they can do. Let’s keep the installs very simple so they can go out there and exhibit their abilities on the field.’” 

6. Another interesting name who’s here as a tryout player is offensive lineman Caleb Benenoch, who was the Buccaneers’ 5th-round pick out of UCLA in 2016 and started 22 games in four years with Tampa. Benenoch hasn’t played since 2019 and has bounced around on various practice squads and training camps (Patriots, Panthers, Cowboys, Lions). Benenoch is wearing No. 61 at these practices. Casey Tucker, who’s been on and off the Eagles’ practice squad, is also here as a tryout offensive lineman.

7. Jalen Hurts isn’t at these rookie practices, but his presence is all over the NovaCare Complex, and Sirianni said he’s been impressed with the progress Hurts has already made learning a new offense in virtual meetings: “He’s done a heck of a job learning the offense, I’ll say that. He’s impressive in there. He’s really got a good control of it. Jalen’s really done a good job of taking the plays that have been taught to him and he can really rattle off exactly what he’s supposed to do on every single play. It’ll be exciting to get on the field with him and see him do it physically.”

8. Newman is an intriguing prospect. Probably headed for the practice squad, but with only Jalen Hurts and Joe Flacco settled at quarterback he’s going to get a long look this summer. Newman, who opted out this past year, certainly looks the part at 6-3, 235 pounds, and the ball seemed to be going where he wanted to go in the few drills that were open. Since he’s the only QB here, these early practices are a great chance for Newman to build up chemistry with Smith and the other young receivers.

9. One of those interesting young receivers is undrafted Florida rookie Trevon Grimes, who is huge. He stands 6-4, 225 and with his big Afro looks about 6-7. Sirianni mentioned how well Grimes seemed to move at 6-4, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he turns into a training camp star. He played in the shadow of Terry McLaurin at Ohio State and then Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney at Florida, but he still found a way to pile up nearly 1,500 receiving yards as a collegian. Can't wait to watch him in action.

10. Sirianni wouldn’t get into any details, but he did say he’s spoken with Zach Ertz, who remains on the Eagles’ roster despite constant speculation about his future. Asked if he’s told Ertz he wants him on the Eagles, Sirianni said, “Let’s just be honest, of course. Zach’s a great football player. He’s shown he’s been a great football player for a very long time. Made a ton of plays. ... Zach’s a heck of a football player and he’s been a heck of a football player for a long time in this league.” It's still hard to imagine Ertz will be here in 2021.