DeVonta Smith burst on the Eagles’ scene already a legend.
The wide receiver won the Heisman Trophy. He was a national champion at Alabama, and 10th overall draft pick.
His rookie season showed production and promise. He had 64 catches for a franchise rookie record 914 yards and five touchdowns. And some weeks, he appeared to be all but ignored in the game plan.
Smith used the offseason to improve his skills, to sharpen his route running and to improve his already imposing speed.
After a groin injury kept him out of most of the first 10 training camp practices, Smith returned to practice ready to make up for lost time. He made spectacular catches and routine ones.
The Eagles overworked him when he returned to get him in fighting shape. He didn’t play in either preseason game and probably won’t play in the final game at Miami.
HURTS WATCHED SMITH TAKE STRIDES
Quarterback Jalen Hurts knows the work his friend Smith put into the offseason and watched his improvement.
- “I think he’s taking tremendous steps,” Hurts said. “We put a lot of work in, in the offseason. I’ve seen it. I was there with him every day, the grind we put in.
- “To see it come out and pay off, to be on the same page with him is good. We just need to build on it, continue to grow, and do what we need to do for the team.”
Smith is only 6-foot, 170 pounds, a size more applicable to an accountant. Smith is almost always the smallest guy on a field full of large, angry and tough men playing a physically demanding game.
His nickname is the “Slim Reaper.”
In Smith’s case, size doesn’t matter much. He has an unnatural artistry to get up in traffic and make tough catches. Few have his speed.
- “I’ve said this about DeVonta before … he was very polished, a credit to his coaches obviously over at Alabama and DeVonta himself,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said.
- “He’s one of those guys that loves football and is going to soak everything up and he’s going to see things and naturally he’s just going to get better.
- “So, he’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten stronger, he feels like he’s running faster out there, and then just everything with his game has gotten better because that’s just the way DeVonta works.”
IT’S THE ROUTE RUNNING
Wide receiver A.J. Brown knows what makes Smith stand out on a field of giants.
“Route running. Route running,” Brown said. “Everybody sees it. I said it the first day I got here that his route running is special.”
Sirianni knows he has a game-breaker in Smith, who gets downfield in a hurry.
- “DeVonta is a great playmaker, fantastic route runner and has a great feel about things,” Sirianni said.
- “There are some concepts we are running with him that we feel like he’s going to do a great job of this year and he did a great job of last year.
- “We are trying to get all our playmakers the ball and the ball has been finding him as of late.”
With all the talk about Smith’s route running, Sirianni was asked how someone excels at that skill. He gave a fascinating answer about a technique that tends to be underrated.
- “You have to really be able to look at the picture and see what coverage it is and then how you’re going to attack,” Sirianni said.
- “We talk a lot about that like, all right, here is what we want to do versus this leverage. Here is what we want to do versus this leverage …
- “Here is what we have to do with Cover 2 and here is what we have to do to change it up.
- “It’s identifying the looks that you’re getting and how you want [to] attack that. There’s certain rules to each play that, like, OK, on this one, I can’t get pushed into this side, right. I have to break it in here.
- “And then there’s this art to, OK … when does the defensive back need a little bit of a change-up based off what I’ve been giving him.
- “To me it’s identifying those things and knowing how to attack.”
SKILLED RECEIVER GROUP
Smith is one of a talented receiver corps, which includes Brown, Quez Watkins, Zach Pascal, Jalen Reagor, plus tight end Dallas Goedert.
Wide receiver Deon Cain made several great catches against the Browns and Olympian Devon Allen stunned everyone with his world-class speed on a 55-yard touchdown pass.
This could be an elite group of receivers at Hurts’ disposal.
“We all create space for each other,” Smith said. “With all of us being out there, everybody being able to play every position, everybody being able to do everything, it makes it hard for defenses to just focus on one guy.
“They have to worry about everybody.”