Why Devin Smith Could Be the Best Deep Threat in the 2015 NFL Draft
Let’s talk about Devin Smith.
Because of the headline you just clicked, you probably assumed we would be doing just that. We start here, though, because it still feels like not enough people are talking about Smith. In what’s expected to be a deep receiving class, Smith is often passed over in the second tier of prospects in lieu of talking about Breshad Perriman, Jaelen Strong, or Phillip Dorsett.
However, Smith’s college production suggests he can be as good of a receiving prospect as those players -- if not better. That production was pretty special. He was one of the best big-play receivers in college football and big plays, on most accounts, are good. Still, Smith continues to passed over more often than not when discussing possible impact players in this year’s draft.
Here is why he should be in the discussion.
Not much about Smith’s measurables jump off the page, except that Smith could quite possibly jump off the page. Smith isn’t a physical freak, and during a process that swoons over imposing athletes, prospects who lack in that department need to stand out somewhere else.
Smith grades out in the 80th percentile in vertical jump and 40-time, according to MockDraftable.com.
If you’re not going to be among the giants at the position -- Smith is listed at 6’0”, 198 lbs. -- jumping high and running fast are probably the two best ways to get around that.
Smith’s 4.42 40-time was tied for seventh best for receivers at the combine but was overshadowed by the times run by J.J. Nelson, Phillip Dorsett, and Kevin White and even more so after Breshad Perriman ran a 4.25 at his pro day. There’s much more to game speed than 40-times, but it’s hard to keep getting brought up, at least in the media, as one of the best deep threats in the class when others are running faster, flashier times.
It can also be easy to gloss over Devin Smith because he wasn’t the number one option in Ohio State’s passing offense. That was Michael Thomas, who led the Buckeyes with 75 targets in 2014. But when Smith was involved in the passing game, good things happened.
Smith was targeted 49 times and caught only 33 passes. Those 33 receptions, though, led to a 931 receiving yards, a 28.2 yards per reception average. That led college football last season, a full four yards higher than Phillip Dorsett’s average of 24.2. There was a bigger gap between Smith and Dorsett at first and second than between Dorsett and Florida International’s Glen Coleman at ninth overall. The last college player to top Smith’s yards per reception average was Stephen Hill in 2011 at 29.3 on 28 receptions.
What’s more impressive than Smith’s yards per reception total last season is how that stands out from the rest of the Ohio State passing offense. The Buckeyes were not a bad passing offense, either. Smith’s production slightly differs from Hill’s at Georgia Tech in 2011 within a run heavy offense. Ohio State was very good throwing the ball in 2014 and even better when throwing to Smith.
Take a look at the chart below. It’s something I’m going to call Target Yards Added. It measures the difference in a quarterback’s yards per attempt and a receiver’s yards per target in a given season. For schools that used multiple quarterbacks, the cumulative yards per attempt from the group was calculated.
What that does is place a value how much a given receiver adds to the passing offense when balls are thrown his way. Devin Smith leads this statistic among the 2015 draft class. And it is not particularly close.
The chart lists receivers in the 2015 draft class who were invited to the NFL Combine but does not include FCS players such as Tre McBride or receivers who sat out 2014, such as Dorial Green-Beckham.
|Name||Yards per Target||QB Yards per Attempt||Difference|
On a per pass basis, the Ohio State offense gained an extra first down’s worth of yards each time Smith was targeted compared to their expectation based on yards per attempt. That’s coming in an offense that already nearly averaged a first down -- 9.09 yards -- each time it threw the ball. Much of this comes from Smith’s ability to convert many of his targets into useful receptions.
Dorsett, who was second behind Smith in yards per reception, falls to just 12.28 yards per target and sees only a 3.95-yard difference from his quarterbacks’ yards per attempt and his own yards per target mark. Those numbers are still among the best in this class but pale in comparison to Smith. Dorsett only had three more receptions despite being targeted 23 more times.
Smith’s ability to convert targets into catches is a skill he can translate to the pro level, albeit not to this degree. In 2014, the yards per target leader in the NFL was DeSean Jackson at 11.9, followed by Kenny Stills at 11.2.
It should be no surprise, then, they were rated highly by our Net Expected Points metric. NEP measures the value of a given play based on the points expected from similar situations from historical play-by-play data. Jackson and Stills were two of the top five receivers in Reception NEP per target last season. Stills led the league at 1.05 Reception NEP per target, while Jackson was fifth at 0.94. The average for receivers with at least 30 targets last season was 0.67.
Let’s not place Smith among the most efficient receivers in the NFL just yet, but he certainly has the potential to fall into that category.
Smith has the ability to do much more than just run in a straight line as a receiver, but at the worst he seems primed to be an immediate impact player as a deep threat. NFL teams are probably talking about Devin Smith more than he’s mentioned in the media, and there’s going to be a team that values Smith’s ability to make plays consistently more than it values a guy who can run really fast.
That decision might just get them the best deep threat in this year’s draft.