Mastering the Force: DeVonta Smith

As dynasty managers, something we’re always looking for is “the next _____________.” We want to predict the breakout before it happens, or acquire talent before the value explodes. We want to take credit for seeing something in a player before others make it well know, or even just plant our flag on who we believe to be our “guy.” 

However, sometimes, this is really, really simple. 

DeVonta Smith is the next Stefon Diggs. Maybe – whispers – maybe more. 

Before rolling your eyes, let me share a few things about Stefon Diggs that you might not realize. 

According to PlayerProfiler.com, in terms of fantasy points per game, Diggs has only finished top five at the position one time in seven total seasons (3rd, 2020). In fact, he has only finished top 10 at position one other time (9th, 2021). It’s safe to say that since joining the Buffalo Bills, Diggs has been utilized as a target hog (166, 164), which has helped him find the peak of his powers and transform himself into one of the game’s top receivers. 

However, despite not reaching the top 10 in any of his other five seasons, Diggs has only missed the top 24 once, and that was his rookie season (42nd, 2015). The rest of the time, Diggs has existed as an extremely reliable, fringe WR1 (14th, 2016; 11th, 2017; 11th, 2018; 24th, 2019).

As a rookie, Diggs flashed his beautiful route running and gift for making explosive plays early on. After missing the first few games of his rookie campaign, Diggs was responsible for receiving totals of 87, 129, 108, and 95 yards in his first four games played. Despite the hot start, Diggs failed to eclipse 50 yards in all except two of the remaining nine games. The point being that football is really, really hard, especially with subpar quarterback play.

2018: 148 targets, 102 receptions, 1,021 yards, 9 touchdowns

2017: 95 targets, 64 receptions, 849 yards, 8 touchdowns

2016: 112 targets, 84 receptions, 903 yards, 3 touchdowns

2015: 84 targets, 52 receptions, 720 yards, 4 touchdowns 

As you can see, it actually took a little while longer for Diggs to fully break out and reach the coveted 1,000 yard threshold. Whether it was dealing with shaky quarterback play, sharing targets with Adam Thielen, or some lingering injuries, Diggs was somewhat of a late-bloomer. He was a breakout/sleeper pick year after year for multiple seasons before it paid off.

As we move forward and attempt to identify “the next Stefon Diggs,” — a budding star with a similar methodology — I think we should look no further than incoming Sophomore, DeVonta Smith. 

Now, I should say that I wasn’t necessarily looking for the next “Diggs” in particular, but really, just a receiver that I am confident in one day joining the list of the professors who teach at the Institute of Separation Arts.

As of right now though, Smith is simply a Padawan living in the Jedi Temple, following and apprenticing Master Diggs each day. He’s expected to be great someday, but really, we aren’t sure when he will become a Jedi Master.

It isn’t just the slender, lanky build that makes both of these receivers similar, but the playstyle is nearly a spitting image, in my eyes. While both are better deep threats than you’d expect — among the league’s best — they also do a nice job of making contested catches. They play physical and each do a tremendous job of fighting at the catch point, despite being no taller than 6’0” and weighing under 200 lbs. They’re slippery and deceptive. They’re explosive, yet destroy opponents with tremendous pace.

However, the main draw with Diggs and Smith is the beautiful, meticulously tuned footwork on every single route. Some receivers, like Diggs, have earned a reputation around the league for being unguardable in man coverage, and like his Master, Padawan Smith stepped in as a highly-touted rookie and refused to disappoint with the opportunities he was given.

The Slim Reaper will look to expand on his impressive rookie season by expediting his developmental process and head toward his ceiling that so many are excited about. For, arguably the college game’s all-time greatest receiver, Smith really flew under the radar despite an impressive campaign that would rank better or within the same realm as Diggs’ first THREE NFL seasons.

Devonta Smith’s Rookie Season: 103 targets, 64 receptions, 916 yards, 5 touchdowns

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In back-to-back draft classes, we’ve seen unprecedented, historic seasons from rookie wide receivers. Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase should not be the expectation, which is why players like Smith are flying under the radar.

According to StatMuse.com, Smith’s 916 yards is ranked 7th among rookie wide receivers the last five years. Regardless of his placement on this list, it’s an impressive feat to be mentioned with this company, especially when you consider the Philadelphia offense ranked 32nd in pass attempts and 25th in passing yards.

Notable names ahead of Smith: Chase, Jefferson, Brown, Waddle, Lamb, McLaurin, Smith-Schuster

Notable names behind Smith: Higgins, Metcalf, Kupp, Ridley, Deebo, Diontae, Moore, Pittman Jr.

Smith’s opportunity in year one was incredible, and he should only continue to climb the rankings as he grows closer and closer to mastering the force as one of the league’s best separation artists.

PlayerProfiler.com has him pegged as the 11th best distance creator against man coverage.

While topping 100 targets as a rook, and taking in a steady 22.1% of the Eagles targets, Smith was ridiculous, and did most of his damage as a deep threat. According to PlayerProfiler.com, Smith ranked 12th in air yards, 6th in air yards share, 6th in average target distance, and 9th in deep targets. 

He was also 10th overall in target quality rating, which combines catchable targets with average target depth. It puts a premium on deep, catchable targets and eliminates short, uncatchable targets. 

Essentially, Smith was routinely open deep, and when Hurts launched it, he was looking for the former Heisman winner. I expect Smith to begin owning that deep cross/intermediate area of the field — a la Calvin Ridley — while simultaneously remaining one of the league’s best deep threats. 

NFL

There’s a lot of room to grow for Smith heading into year two, whether it’s having a higher route participation (86.0%), a higher snap share (82.8%), or improved quarterback play.

And on that note, here is a link to a tremendous thread on why you should believe in Jalen Hurts from David J. Gautieri (@GuruFantasyWrld).

Nonetheless, there are plenty of factors to have optimism about when projecting the career of DeVonta Smith. The longer you continue to hold out on Smitty and blame his build, or offense, or quarterback the more you’re going to be telling on yourself.

With all of the incredible talent that he possesses, there are little nuances of the game that Smith is going to pick up on in year two and year three that he wasn’t ready for as a rookie. He is going to continue progressing and growing until he becomes the Master Jedi.

In football situations change in a second. Don’t allow a changeable factor to keep you from being in on the talent that is DeVonta Smith. It goes without saying that his time is coming. “The force is strong with this one.”

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