The NFL Scouting Combine does a great job highlighting players with a track background. Ohio State product Devin Smith is one such player who should shine in the 40-yard dash, broad jump and vertical jump events, but he has also proven he’s explosive on the field.
During his college career, Smith got behind defenses and made big plays regularly. Great athletes with top-end college production are usually able to translate their game to the NFL, and that accurately describes Smith.
Smith doesn’t check all of the boxes or he’d be one of the top receivers in this class, but he has the prerequisite traits to make plays in the NFL while he refines his route running and gets stronger. He isn’t a finished product, but the raw tools are there for him to become a very good NFL receiver.
Often we expect prospects to be stars as rookies, but that’s not always the case. Smith should be able to stretch defenses immediately, but he needs time to develop. He is also a great gunner on special teams, which is added value to any team that takes a chance on him.
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com compared Smith to DeSean Jackson, but other comparable prospects include Lee Evans, Roddy White and Torrey Smith. His ability to stretch the field in college is reminiscent of Evans and White at the college level and Jackson and Torrey Smith at the pro level.
|Big-Play College Receivers Since 2000 (Career)|
|Lee Evans (1999-2003)||44||175||3468||19.8||27|
|Roddy White (2001-2004)||45||163||3112||19.1||26|
|Charles Rogers (2001-2002)||24||125||2551||20.4||25|
|Devin Smith (2011-2014)||53||118||2478||21||29|
Only four receivers since 2000 have caught more than 100 balls in their college career with more than 25 touchdowns and averaged more than 19 yards per catch. They are White, Evans, Charles Rogers and Smith. It can be dangerous to use college stats to compare players, but when that production is off the charts and all of the players in the same company were first-round picks, it’s hard to ignore.
Rogers was the only bust of the previous three, but he had a ton of off-the-field issues. Smith has no known issues, although he admitted to temporarily withdrawing from the coaches when their plans to move him around and get him the ball more didn’t come to fruition.
Smith’s senior season was unique in that he averaged 28.2 yards per catch and caught 12 touchdowns. Over a third of his catches were for scores. If it seems like he only ran go routes, that’s not far off. He ran a lot of them, but he’s recently started to learn to run other routes.
"He used to be a one-trick pony," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman told Terrance Harris of The Times-Picayune in December. "He couldn't do anything but run deep. He's still really good at that but he is running routes better, he's catching the ball better, he's blocking better.”
Smith had a season-high six catches against Michigan State in November, showing that he could do more than run deep. Smith ran curls and hitches early in the game before breaking off his signature big play on 3rd-and-23 with his team trailing 14-7.
“Most of these college guys don't run very many route trees,” Charles Davis of NFL Network told BJ Kissel of KCChiefs.com when discussing Smith at the Senior Bowl. “It's not their fault. It's just the way the [college] offenses are designed.”
Smith still has a lot to learn about running routes simply because he didn’t run that many different ones at Ohio State. A player can learn to run routes and beat the jam if they have the prerequisite skills. It doesn’t mean they will, but some things coaches can’t teach, and Smith has many of those traits. He will have to get stronger, but he wouldn’t be the smallest receiver to be successful in the NFL.
A creative offensive coordinator should be able to use Smith’s speed to open up things for other receivers. When defenses start to honor his speed, NFL teams should throw in a screen to take advantage of the cushion, which is not something Ohio State did much with him.
His speed will also benefit him on shallow crossers, but that also wasn’t part of Ohio State’s offense. As such, Smith’s skills will translate better at the pro level than they did in college. Andy Reid and Chip Kelly come to mind as those who could use a receiver like Smith properly.
The best thing about Smith is that his ability to beat defenders deep will only get better as his technique improves. Cornerbacks will have to respect the shorter routes if he runs them better, and that will mean they’ll have to jam him or play closer to the line of scrimmage.
If he learns to beat the jam with his hands and feet, he’s going to make big plays in the NFL like he did in college. Smith’s speed is such that even one mistake by a defensive back could be a big play.
Even the more capable NFL defensive backs will have trouble sticking with him on deep routes because he’s not only fast, but he also tracks the ball over his shoulder and adjusts to it in the air very well. Smith usually won at the catch point on deep balls despite the inaccuracy of his quarterbacks.
You can see his ability to track the ball against Michigan State. He starts out near the numbers and tracks the ball all the way to the sideline on his big catch in the second quarter.
A great example of Smith’s ability to adjust to the ball and make plays in contested situations was against Wisconsin. He beat the defender deep, but the ball was so underthrown he had to fight back underneath the defender to make the touchdown catch.
Smith has some rare traits that should serve him well in the NFL. If he’s committed to learning how to run routes and beat the jam, he has a ton of potential. He might not be an ideal first-round pick because he is so raw and there will be added pressure for him to be a star right away.
In the second round, he could be end up being a steal. In that way, a big combine performance pushing him into the first round could be to his detriment, but ultimately it’s going to depends on the offense and his ability to learn. Either way, he should be more than an athlete at the NFL level.