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DeVonta Smith May Have the Heisman, but Ja'Marr Chase Is 2021 NFL Draft's Top WR

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 6, 2021

LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase (1) carries the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019. No. 1 LSU won 58-37. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)
Thomas Graning/Associated Press

Something happened Tuesday that had previously happened just three times in the history of college football. Something that hadn't happened since 1991.

A wide receiver won the Heisman Trophy when DeVonta Smith of Alabama was named the most outstanding player in college football.

However, while Smith's achievement (and his 2020 season) was undoubtedly outstanding, his time as the unquestioned top wide receiver in college football is going to be fleeting.

It's a matter of perspective. From the moment Smith was named the Heisman winner, the focus shifted from what he has done to what he will do at the professional level. And as fantastic as he was for the Crimson Tide in 2020, he's not at the top of the class when it comes to NFL potential. He may not be at the top of his own team.

No, where the 2021 NFL draft is concerned, the leading option among wideouts played about 350 miles away from Tuscaloosa in Baton Rouge. Or at least he did before opting out of the 2020 season to focus on his NFL career.

His name is Ja'Marr Chase, and he's a bad man.

Now, before fans of Smith and Alabama get out the pitchforks, let's make one thing perfectly clear: This isn't a knock on Smith. The 6'1", 175-pounder is a ridiculously talented pass-catcher coming off an amazing season.

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Roger Steinman/Associated Press

All Smith has done during Alabama's march to the national championship game is lead the nation in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641), all-purpose yards (1,912) and receiving touchdowns (20). Depending on what happens against Ohio State, he could break the Alabama career receptions record held by Amari Cooper (228), the SEC single-season touchdown catch record, for which he's tied with Chase, and the SEC career receiving yards record held by Jordan Matthews (3,759).

Other than that, though, he's just been OK.

As Jordan Reid wrote for The Draft Network, Smith has the potential to serve as a No. 1 wideout at the professional level. There's nothing he can't do for a quarterback, whether it's making the tough catch on third down over the middle or taking the top off a defense vertically:

"Smith is a multi-faceted receiver in that he's able to generate explosive plays down the field but also able to create them with his run after catch abilities. He also can serve as a quarterback's security blanket on third down as a go-to target because of his ability to create separation against man-to-man coverage, but also find and settle into the soft spots of zone coverage."

There's a reason Smith was the first wide receiver to win the Heisman in three decades. If there's a green room for players at the 2021 draft in Cleveland, he will be there. He isn't making it out of the first round, and his future is bright.

But The Draft Network's prospect rankings don't even have Smith as the No. 1 wide receiver from the University of Alabama. That honor belongs to Jaylen Waddle, the 5'10", 182-pound burner who averaged 22.3 yards catch before breaking his ankle and has speed comparable to former teammate Henry Ruggs III.

The folks at CBS Sports have Smith ahead of Waddle. But much like TDN, they don't have the Heisman winner as the top prospect at his position in 2021. Both sites (and most other draftniks) give that title to Chase.

It's been forgotten by some, but Chase was one of the most productive wide receivers in the nation two years ago while serving as the top pass-catcher for one of college football's best offenses ever.

In 2019, he caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards (an SEC record) and 20 touchdowns (also an SEC record). He averaged a ridiculous 21.2 yards per reception and won the Biletnikoff Award as the top wide receiver in the nation.

You know Justin Jefferson, the rookie phenomenon with the Minnesota Vikings who just broke Anquan Boldin's record for a first-year player in the Super Bowl era with 1,400 receiving yards? He played second fiddle to Chase with the Tigers in 2019.

For real.

There just isn't anything Chase doesn't do exceedingly well. At 6'1" and 200 pounds, he isn't especially big or physical. But time and again against SEC competition, he displayed his ability to make contested catches. He isn't as fast as Waddle, but he's believed to run in the 4.40 range, and averaging 21.2 yards per grab on 84 receptions would certainly appear to show his ability to hurt opponents down the field.

As Joe Marino wrote for The Draft Network, what may really set Chase apart is his refinement, technique and route-running:

John Bazemore/Associated Press

"Chase is a true route technician with a terrific feel for how to manipulate his defender, attack space, get open and make adjustments on the fly. His footwork is fluid, deceptive, and intentional working in and out of breaks and he runs routes with outstanding tempo. Chase can run a full route tree to all levels of the field with no limitations."

It's not just that Chase was incredibly prolific at LSU or that he's exceptionally talented. He's also arguably the most NFL-ready of this year's top prospects at the position. Even after he took a year off, there's no reason to think he won't be an immediate impact player at the next level.

Of course, Smith may be, too. So could Waddle. There could be several more wide receivers selected in Round 1, as well, whether it's a bigger wideout like Terrace Marshall Jr. of LSU, a shiftier player like Minnesota's Rashod Bateman or a technician like Chris Olave of Ohio State.

It's never guaranteed that the first receiver drafted will be the best receiver drafted, either. Scouting is an inexact science. As an example, Jefferson was actually the fifth player at his position selected last year.

But the Class of 2020 was one in which no top wideout stood apart from the rest. There was a big variance among draftniks and scouts about who "the guy" was. That's not the case in 2021.

This year, a dissenting voice or two may emerge. But the overwhelming consensus is that one wide receiver stands head and shoulders above the rest, has the makings of a true difference-maker in the passing game and functions as an alpha dog. 

And it's not the guy who was handed a trophy Tuesday night.

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