PHILADELPHIA — When DeVonta Smith transitioned from Heisman Trophy winning receiver to 2021 NFL draft prospect, his size became the focus.
Listed at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds on the University of Alabama’s website, he was reportedly measured at 6-feet and 166 pounds during the medical combine in April. Debate over how successful he can be in the pros at that stature raged during the leadup to the draft, and has remained a topic of discussion since the Eagles selected him with the No. 10 overall pick.
On one hand, Smith’s size is a bit concerning. Entering the 2021 draft, the past seven receivers selected in the top 10 measured an inch taller and about 35 pounds heavier (6-foot-2, 212 pounds on average) than Smith’s listed height and weight, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The last wideout selected in the top 10 weighing less than 180 pounds? Tavon Austin (No. 8 overall by the Rams in 2013), who hasn’t started a game over the past three seasons and has not surpassed five receiving touchdowns in a single season.
On the other hand, Smith had no issues tearing up the talent-laden SEC en route to becoming the NCAA leader in receptions (117), receiving yards (1,856) and receiving touchdowns (23) in 2020, and has been compared favorably to a couple of other smaller receivers who became Pro Football Hall of Famers: Marvin Harrison (6-foot, 185) and Isaac Bruce (6-foot, 188). Harrison was enshrined in 2016, and Bruce will be enshrined as part of the 2020 class on August 7.
Bruce believes the comparisons to himself and Harrison are fair.
“[Smith] isn’t the most vocal guy, you can start there, which is something I like. He has tremendous confidence when he does open his mouth, and you can see it in his play,” Bruce told ESPN. “He’s very similar to Marvin. I can see a lot of it as far as the separation is concerned, [how he] catches the ball well, strong hands, and his ability to run after the catch, very similar to the way Marvin played.”
Bruce can relate to the skepticism Smith is facing, though in Bruce’s case, it came primarily from teammates as opposed to the public domain. He entered draft week in 1994 at 182 pounds but dropped 12 pounds in seven days as a result of stress over when and where he would be selected, weighing in at 170 pounds when selected 33rd overall by the Rams.
“My new teammates were kind of shocked just how small I was, or how I like to say, how big I was,” said Bruce, who was also questioned about the level of competition he faced coming out of Memphis. “I think the important thing is how DeVonta sees himself. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a 6-foot-5, 215-pound player. And I think he sees himself that way as well. His game proves that, because he plays big.”
Bruce said he didn’t use the doubters as motivation, but “probably ended [up] winking at a couple guys” once his play proved their assumptions faulty, “and after that we became good friends.”
One of the primary adjustments for Bruce was getting used to bigger cornerbacks in the NFL who use their physicality to re-route receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage. It took him about eight weeks to get acclimated to the speed of the game, and anticipates it will be a smaller learning curve for Smith given the quality of talent he faced in college. Bruce thinks Smith will add about 10 pounds of muscle, which he believes might make Smith even faster than he was at Alabama.
Bruce (15,208) and Harrison (14,580) rank fifth and ninth, respectively, in career receiving yards. They proved that smarts, quality route running, sticky hands and separation speed can be the formula for outstanding receiver play, even in the absence of ideal size.
Smith said he hasn’t studied Bruce or Harrison’s film quite yet, but plans on taking a closer look to see what he can apply to his own game.
“I’ve seen a little bit of Marvin Harrison from watching football when I was young,” Smith said. “But to be compared to somebody like him, I mean, that’s great, that let’s me know that I’m going in the right direction.”
Bruce’s teammates gave him the nickname “The Reverend” during his playing days “because it was always his intention to pick up a Bible when it was time to put his helmet down.” Fittingly, Bruce referenced a biblical character in summing up his feelings about Smith.
“When you look at Samson, the whole county, the whole town was trying to figure out: Where did Samson get his strength from? So obviously Samson couldn’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he has supernatural strength,” Bruce said. “So it’s the same thing with DeVonta. He doesn’t look that big, but he creates separation, he can run by you, he’s smart enough to play in a zone and find open spots. So I like everything about his game.”