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Reception Perception: Devin Smith and the Value of a Trump Card

Matt Harmon uses his Reception Perception methodology to assess Devin Smith, the NFL's next great deep threat who may offer even more.

 

During the season here at Footballguys, I profiled receivers using my Reception Perception methodology. Now, that is officially draft season, we’ll turn our focus to the incoming rookies. In anticipation of the release of the 2015 Reception Perception Project, and the NFL Draft, I’ll be releasing prospect profiles using the Reception Perception methodology. In this edition, we’ll study a tantalizing deep threat in Devin Smith.

Ohio State was the best team in college football this season. Now that we have a true playoff system to award a National Championship, we can finally say that in earnest. The influence of a surprising third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones, and a stud sophomore running back, Ezekiel Elliot, were the main catalysts in propelling OSU to the top of the NCAA ranks. However, it would be foolish to discount the efforts of another offensive player, wide receiver Devin Smith.

Buckeyes fans were used the senior wideout making dynamic plays and catching long touchdowns. NFL draft analysts and enthusiasts were not nearly as prepared when big media members began slotting Devin Smith into the first round of mock drafts. The consensus opinion had him pegged as a day three prospect heading into his senior season. So, he was naturally pegged as a classic “late riser”; a player that was being overrated based on his team’s success and his balky yards per catch figure. We’ve seen that story told before, and the uninspiring results that usually follow.

Many times in life, our first instinct is to reject the unexpected. As the most developed species on the planet, we’ve grown to believe that what we’ve planned in our own little worlds is what should come to fruition. This certainly pertains to a macro and societal level, but it can also seep into the very micro and niche areas, such as draft analysis. Many times our hubris makes us inflexible, and we miss out on opportunities for growth and knowledge in our pursuits. No one is exempt from this; we’ve all been there.

Perhaps in this case, the draft community missed something all along with Devin Smith. Were there are flashes and indications hidden in perceived long absences between the occasional long receptions? Regardless, is the value that his deep ball ability brings to an NFL offense enough to justify his ascension to a potential first round selection? These are among the questions that Reception Perception attempts to answer.

Disclaimer: usually a full season profile of Reception Perception works through eight games of a receiver. Unfortunately, with the scarcity of all-22 footage available on college prospects, that was not possible. For the purposes of this profile, we’ll be working strictly off Devin Smith’s 2014 games against Michigan State, Illinois, Penn State, Virginia Tech and Minnesota.

Alignment Data 

Devin Smith made a big impact on his college team. However, he was not a featured player in their offense. In this five game sample, Smith played 151 snaps. He averaged just over 30 snaps per game. It seems odd that a player who is now a projected early round pick was not even a regular on his college teams offense. We’ll table that conundrum for now, and revisit it later on when exploring other aspects of Smith’s Reception Perception data. 

When he was on the field, Smith was usually lined up as an outside receiver. Ohio State liked to get him against one-on-one matchups, where he could use his speed to his advantage. He did get some reps in the slot, and is just as deadly tearing through the seams, as he is the boundary. The Buckeyes also played him on the line of scrimmage for 64.2% of his snaps from this five game sample. That indicates that the coaching staff was comfortable with Smith facing tight physical coverage.

In the NFL, Devin Smith is a strong bet to move around the formation. His professional team will want to locate the best matchups for him to exploit. 

Target Data

When examining Devin Smith’s target data, we begin to see a clearer picture of his usage develop. Over this five game sample, Smith’s quarterback targeted him on 23% of the routes he ran. This figure eclipses Dorial Green-Beckham’s target per route rate that we looked at in a previous Reception Perception study. A rate in the low-twenties is consistent with a wide receiver that is a regular in the offense, but falls a bit short of number one wide receiver territory.

Smith’s snap count of 30.2 per game, over this sample, indicates he is a rotational player. However, his 23% target per route rate hints at much heavier level of involvement. The truth is: Devin Smith was a package player at Ohio State, and there would be long stretches of time where Smith would not see the field. Rather, a different set of wide receivers would take the field. Smith was deployed in certain situations, and with particular personnel groupings. Interestingly, a number of those situations included running plays. It’s likely that Urban Meyer and the Ohio State coaching staff saw great value in having Smith on the field for running downs, simply because his speed would cause defenses to back off the line. Commanding such respect gave this player additional value in the college game, and his NFL team should be able to reap the benefits in the coming season and beyond. In addition to that bump in tactical value, Smith still received a target on 23% of the routes he ran. When Smith was on the field, and when the play call was a pass, he was a priority in the Ohio State offense. 

It makes sense that the Buckeyes trusted Smith. Watch any cutup of this player and you’ll see that he was routinely asked to make difficult catches. That was not much of an issue for Smith. Over this five game sample, he converted 64.7% of his targets into catches, and did not drop a pass. Both his catch and drop rates are extremely impressive.  

The marriage of these figures helps alleviate concerns about any perceived lack of production with Devin Smith. Some evaluators may worry that projecting Smith to become a fulltime NFL player, despite being a rotational one in college, is too big of a jump. While a footnote worth mentioning in a scouting report, it’s hardly a determinative factor in NFL success. The term “raw” is often associated and attached to a prospect like Devin Smith. However, he’s a really the perfect illustration of the discernable difference between “raw” and “hasn’t been asked to do it yet” in scouting prospects. It’s of the utmost importance to note the difference in Smith’s play, and use, when his team changed quarterbacks. With the young J.T. Barrett under center, Ohio State was a college style, run first offense through and through. All of the games sampled in this study are ones with Barrett starting. After his injury, and Cardale Jones’ ascension, Ohio State opened up the playbook. The bigger Jones was a far superior thrower, especially in the deep areas of the field. This led to more chances for Smith to shine.

Yes, Devin Smith was primarily asked to be a spot player for his college team. That does not rule out that he can ascend to a greater role in the NFL. Draft prospect evaluation is about projecting, not assessing what they did as collegiate athletes. As such, we’ll continue to focus on Smith in that light. 

Contested Catch Success Rate

In the previous Reception Perception studies, we’ve noted Dorial Green-Beckham had great potential winning contested catches, despite some lapses. On the other hand, that appeared to be a weakness in Amari Cooper’s game. In the third iteration of the series, a true contested catch maven appears.

Devin Smith checked in at 6’0 and 196 pounds at the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine. He proceeded to run a 4.42 40-yard dash time, with a 1.56 10-yard split. To top it off, Smith recorded some solid vertical and broad jump numbers. Smith’s athletic attributes are even better stated on the field.

While his speed is evident, it’s his ability to play the ball in the air that makes him a true threat. In the five games charted for this Reception Perception study, Smith went up for six contested catches and came down with all of them. Similar to Odell Beckham Jr., he’s proof that size can be a misleading quality for judging a receiver’s prowess at the catch point. Timing, leaping ability, and tracking the ball are all qualities that can mitigate a lack of size in a prospect. Smith is at a near mastery level in each of those advanced wide receiver attributes. He has an outstanding knack for leaving his feet at the perfect time to beat a defender in the air. Most receivers lose sight of the ball, or throw their hands up too early and out of place, when making a play in the air. Smith, on the other hand, is nearly flawless in this regard. There might not be another receiver who tracks the ball, and wins contested passes down the field in this class better than Devin Smith. 

A 100% contested catch conversion rate, coupled with strong catch and drop rates, lend credence to the conclusions that Devin Smith has strong hands. His toughness in the air, and proficiency at the catch point are what adds to his appeal beyond the typical deep threat. Even more so, Smith’s ability to win and separate at all levels of the field will make general managers hesitant to let him slip past their first round pick.

Route Analysis and Success Rate Versus Coverage Data

Mentioned throughout this study, and readily apparent to anyone who has perused his box score, Devin Smith’s most valuable trait is his ability in the deep game. That reality is played out in his fairly unbalanced Route Percentage Chart:

Devin Smith ran 74 routes over this five game sample, which is quite low. For context’s sake, that’s just slightly more than Dorial Green-Beckham’s 62 routes over two games, and pales in comparison to Amari Cooper’s 165 over five games. As mentioned earlier, the Buckeyes played Smith regularly on run downs to open up the defense, and used him in packages, as opposed to a featuring him. Again, this does not make him a raw player, but it does mean he wasn’t asked to do much in college. In conjunction with that idea, its no surprise Smith’s Route Percentage Chart does not have balance from pattern to pattern.

Nine and curl routes represent over half of the patterns called for Devin Smith over this five game sample. The 28.4% of vertical routes is not surprising in the least. Good coaching is about putting your players in positions to win, and asking them to repeatedly do what they excel at. Clearly, Urban Meyer understood the weapon he had in Devin Smith, and when they called routes, sent him flying down the field. When he steps foot into an NFL facility, his new team will likely begin crafting a similar utilization plan for Smith.

His next highest route percentage was on curl routes, with a 21.6% rate. A simple pattern, but one with utility and makes sense for Smith on multiple levels. Due to his terrifying speed, he can get a good bit of cushion from the cornerback playing him, and then break back to the quarterback. Also, the curl lends itself to the strong sense of timing Smith plays with. Knowing when to cut off and stem the route is an innate ability not all receivers possess. Smith’s sense of timing is pristine, and he’s clearly put in the work during his reps to become a good route runner, in this regard. 

While its right to focus on Smith’s blazing speed and ball tracking ability, it would be foolish to overlook the subtle moves he uses in his routes to create separation:

(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)

Again starting with the obvious, Devin Smith’s nine route numbers on his Route Tree Success Rate Chart are gaudy. In fact, in all of Reception Perception’s time, no wide receiver has ever (over the course of a multiple game sample size) clocked in a higher SRVC on nine routes than the 90.5% that Devin Smith amassed. There are many descriptive words to describe that number, most of which are synonyms to “crazy”. Normally, a receiver posting an above 60% SRVC on nine-routes is a positive figure. For Smith to break the 90% barrier is just incredible. Again, while straight-line speed is a factor, Smith also shows that ability to elude a defender with a side step or midsection mid-route. He changes gears very well, including putting his foot the gas and hitting his fifth gear. In addition to showing pure skill, Smith also produced at a high level on vertical routes, amassing 32.3 PPR fantasy points on nines.

Something I’ve focused on this draft season is identifying a player’s trump card, especially in regard to wide receivers. The player’s trump card is their one advantage that, when all else fails, they can use to beat the opposition. I missed on Kelvin Benjamin because I failed to value his trump card highly enough. Despite correctly identifying that Benjamin’s flaws would follow him to the pros, I miscalculated and did not recognize that his sheer size, and ability to make out of this world catches at the highest point, would be enough to make him a viable NFL starter.

Much like Benjamin, Smith has a trump card, and an incredibly valuable one at that. Even when a defender gets the better of him in route, or can match him in will and drive, Smith can still win over the top. Whether it’s by speed, positioning or technical route running, this player has an undeniable feel for the deep game. Once he’s got himself in position, we’ve seen through his contested catch success rate he’s winning that ball more often than not. A defense can do everything right, and even blot him out three downs in a row, but Smith can still drop his trump card and catch a 60-yard touchdown on the fourth play. 

As for Smith’s other SRVC route scores, Devin Smith grades out in an overall positive fashion. His next most frequently run route, the curl, came in at a healthy 75% SRVC. Other timing and cut-at-the-stem based routes, such as the slant and comeback, came out in the 80-percent range. To no one’s surprise, other deep routes like the post and corner saw Smith earn favorable SRVC scores. He did not score below 50% SRVC on any of the routes he ran over this five game sample.

Devin Smith shows flashes of the technical nuances necessary to think, with more opportunity, he can routinely beat coverage at all levels of the field:

Smith faced much more man than zone coverage over this five game sample. His SRVC against man came in at a very good 78.8% on 52 attempts. That puts him between Dorial Green-Beckham (86.1%) and Amari Cooper (74.7%), in terms of getting open against man coverage. When facing zones, Smith registered a SRVC of 86.4% on 22 attempts. That figure is the highest success rate charted amongst the three 2015 draft prospects charted. While most of this success came in the deep game, such high scores do shed light on the previously mentioned flashes of a complete player, potentially waiting to be unlocked.

While maintaining good SRVC marks against both brands of coverage, he also managed to survive when defenses mixed it up. While only doubled seven times over five games, Smith still managed to beat multiple defenders on one play with some regularity. One of the more impressive things to note when watching Smith is how he gains a release at the line of scrimmage. On 14 press attempts by the defense, Smith was able to get free for a 92.9% SRVC. A smooth athlete, the senior wideout is able to effortlessly redirect after taking a false step outside to go inside, or vice vera, in beating a defender’s jam attempt. Smith takes strong and deliberate steps to earn a clean path to get into his route.

While he is a true deep game artist, Smith shows a number of signs you look for when scouting the college ranks for NFL starting receivers. His SRVC scores tell the story of both his trump card, and his potential for more.

Tackle Breaking Measurement

In the previous Reception Perception prospect profile, we noticed Dorial Green-Beckham did not get many chance to break tackles in the open field. Devin Smith was afforded a similar lack of opportunities:

Of the 74 routes Smith ran in this five game sample, Ohio State only “got him in space” on 5.4% of them. This is a new way of viewing Reception Perception’s open field attempts. While we always hear coaches talk about “getting players in space”, its a plan that can sometimes be a bit more difficult to put into action. The percentage of routes where a receiver was given an attempt to run in the open field should help quantify how often teams really do this. 

For Smith, his number is strikingly low for a five game sample, and he went down on first contact on 75% of his attempts. With such a low percentage of routes in space figure, it’s nearly impossible to draw any hard conclusions regarding Smith as a run after the catch player. He does show the requisite game-breaking speed and toughness to be a threat with the ball in his hands, but we rarely saw it in the open field at OSU. Remember, over 50% of the routes charted for Smith were nine and curl routes, neither of which helps a receiver in getting in space. Perhaps Smith’s NFL team will use him in different ways. For now, this part of the evaluation is an incomplete.

Translation and the Bottom Line

The buzz surrounding Devin Smith as a first-round pick is legitimate. Remember, that only applies to this year’s draft, which is widely regarded as a weak one. Some evaluators have less than 20 players with first round grades. With 32 teams needing to make a pick on the opening day of the event that means as many as 12 players will have to populate the rest of the first round. Devin Smith is certainly worthy of being one of the players who gets a boost. 

There’s little to no chance that Smith does not at least find a role as a strong deep threat in the NFL. It’s hard to look at his SRVC on nine routes (90.5%) and contested catch conversion rate (100%) and not believe Smith will translate his deep game prowess to the pros. Much like Kelvin Benjamin did with his height and my ball mentality; Smith can provide immediate impact and exceed expectations as a rookie, because he has a trump card. Even if nothing else works, Smith can lay down his ability to rip through a defense, track and win the ball in the air on the table. Such a weapon is extremely valuable to NFL teams; one who can do it so consistently is rare. It seems pretty logical for a team to take a stab at that in the early portions of the NFL Draft.

The question is whether Devin Smith ever becomes anything beyond a strong deep threat. Some of his Reception Perception numbers illustrate that there is a chance he can do just that. He maintained good SRVC scores on routes outside of the nine-route. Smith has good movement within his routes, and changes direction without much belabored effort. He’s smooth in and out of cuts, and gets great separation at crucial breaks. His critics seem to miss Smith’s potential as a timing and precision player and therefore leave him vastly underrated. This prospect also has strong hands, even when asked to make difficult catches. 

Even if Smith never develops into the complete player these attributes hint at, his trump card is enough to make a team fall in love. Reception Perception indicates that spending a high pick to consecrate that infatuation would be justifiable. Sometimes in the draft world, we have a tendency to overcomplicate something that is quite simple. Devin Smith’s evaluation appears to be one such misstep. Already a world-class deep threat, but a player who leaves you feeling confident there’s more to uncover, Smith will fit right into the NFL. Regardless of which end of his career spectrum he lands on, this player has a place and a role. Such certainty is invaluable in the early rounds of the NFL draft.

When we look back on Devin Smith five years from now, Reception Perception indicates we will do so in a positive light—one way or another. If he’s developed into a starting, every down receiver, then we’ll recall that sometimes scouting is about taking a jeweler’s eye to the fine details. If he’s just making his living burning teams over the top on a regular basis, we’ll remember the value of a player with an undeniable trump card. While it may not be enough to check all the boxes, a trump card is enough to keep a flawed player producing in the league for a long time. Devin Smith may not even be a flawed player who needs his trump card to survive, but a very good one that can use it to become something excellent. 

If you enjoyed this prospect profile, become familiar with Reception Perception and learn about the release of the first annual Reception Perception Project publication. Make sure to follow the series, and bookmark it to prepare for the release of the inaugural edition of the publication this summer.