Where will DeVonta Smith play next?
It's one of the more intriguing questions awaiting an answer as the 2021 NFL draft draws closer. The Heisman Trophy-winning Alabama star's Q-Rating seemed to peak as he was blistering Ohio State's defense in January during a record-setting performance (12 catches) in the College Football Playoff title game – some draft observers even suggesting the New York Jets should consider him with the No. 2 overall selection.
Since then, Smith's stock has cooled, if only relative to the Jets' pick, primarily due to questions about his frame – officially 6 feet and 166 pounds during the NFL's recent medical re-check, according to Sports Illustrated.
But is the concern overblown?
"I think initially when you look at him, you just see his size. And if you're the one with the responsibility of stopping him, you would underestimate him just from looking at him in warm-ups," Hall of Fame receiver Isaac Bruce told USA TODAY Sports. (Smith has frequently drawn lofty comparisons to Bruce and fellow Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison.)
"But if you go to the film, you definitely see a lot of attributes that were very similar to Marvin Harrison as far as being able to get open, the separation he has, his ability to catch the ball in a crowd," Bruce continued.
"I carried some of those same traits as well, just being able to separate and just being wide open instead of just open. So that's DeVonta Smith, that was Marvin Harrison, and I was that way from some standpoints as well."
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Former Rams WR Isaac Bruce sets sail on the game-winning TD of Super Bowl 34. (Photo: Jared Lazarus, USA TODAY)
Those abilities were certainly apparent in 2020, when Smith set Southeastern Conference career (3,965 receiving yards) and single-season records (1,856 receiving yards, 23 TDs). He typically spent Saturdays gliding through opposing defenses for huge chunks of yardage and is a surefire first-rounder almost certain to hear his named called in the top 15 on Thursday night.
Still, what happens when Smith encounters physical NFL corners like Jalen Ramsey after he leveraged the free releases the Buckeyes gave him into 215 receiving yards and three touchdowns in a performance curtailed after halftime by a finger injury?
"As far as being jammed at the line of scrimmage," said Bruce, "he probably went against (Alabama corner) Patrick Surtain II in practice every day, and I'm sure he won his share of battles with him. But other NFL-quality cornerbacks that were in the SEC that played against him – when you look at him in pre-game, you're probably thinking, 'I'm just gonna get up and jam this guy and not let him off the line of scrimmage.'
"But I didn't see that much happening when he played against Auburn, when he played against Georgia. These guys would back off him for a reason, because they probably tried to jam him and couldn't jam him. My advice to (Smith) is to just be who he is, and that's being elusive at the line of scrimmage, always have a plan, and once you make guys miss maybe two or three times and run by them for a touchdown – that jamming, it's over with.
"You can't afford to miss a guy like that at the line of scrimmage, especially on this (NFL) level."
Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Bruce, of course, knows something about that. He used a clean release in Super Bowl 34 to haul in the game-winning 73-yard touchdown from Kurt Warner with fewer than two minutes on the clock as the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans 23-16 for what remains the franchise's only Lombardi Trophy.
Former Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli further suggests that Smith's next offensive coordinator can lend a helping hand by using pre-snap motion to help him avoid press coverage and contact at the line.
"He's a dynamic athlete, he's a tremendous player with rare tools: good route running, incredible ball skills and incredible tracking ability," added Pioli, now an NFL Network analyst.
Alabama listed Smith at 175 pounds. Bruce said he'd often report to training camps during his 16-year NFL career at a muscled-up 190 pounds but was typically down to 175 by season's end "just from all the running." But in his experience, defensive backs also wear down over the course of a grueling NFL campaign and start to save their shoulders from the rigors of tackling around midseason.
"Now you can just play a free-flowing game after that," said Bruce, who finished with 1,024 catches for 15,208 yards and 91 touchdowns and is beginning the next phase of his post-playing career by tutoring wideouts at all levels in an effort to pass on hard-earned wisdom.
Even if defenders avoid getting physical with Smith at the snap, Bruce believes they might try hitting and tackling him with extra fervor to see if that breaks him down – not that he believes it will make much difference.
"He'll be fine," Bruce added. "He's played against NFL competition already in college. He'll be seeing the same guys from a safety standpoint and a cornerback standpoint, and he's dominating."
Bruce even doubled down on that notion, believing Smith – whether at 166 pounds or 186 – has the capability to be an offensive focal point, not merely one cog of a pro passing machine.
"Once his development (occurs), he's gonna be a guy who's gonna have to be double-teamed," said Bruce. "He's just that good. … You just see his maturation from college, making huge plays his freshman season all the way up to being the guy last year, and he just showed up every single week.
"He'll definitely be a No. 1 receiver, not very long from now."
Smith accounted for nearly 40% of the Crimson Tide's yards through the air last season, Bruce noting how heavily offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian came to rely on him.
"I love his game, his approach to it. He's very confident," said Bruce. "I think he's gonna help a team tremendously in his first season."
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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