Devonta Smith vs. Jaylen Waddle: Which Alabama wideout should the Eagles Target?


The Eagles need playmakers.


This has been true for what seems like forever, but it's still an unfortunate fact today. Especially after the trade down at 12, all indicators seem to point to the Eagles targeting an offensive weapon instead of a quarterback. With Florida TE Kyle Pitts and LSU WR Ja'Marr Chase likely to go too high for the birds, attention has turned to two receivers in particular. And with a QB in Jalen Hurts coming off of an uneven but promising rookie season, a true number 1 wide receiver that functions as an elite playmaker to take pressure off him would no doubt do wonders for his development.


There seems to be two options, and either one might require a small trade-up in the draft. The general consensus is that two playmakers will be realistically available for the Eagles to target: Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, both teammates in college at Alabama.


So what are each's strengths and weaknesses? Where and how should they be used? What's their fit with the Eagles? That's what I set out to answer.


Jaylen Waddle

To put it simply, one word comes to mind with Waddle: explosive. In an Eagles Uniform, he'd provide true explosiveness that rivals the likes of DeSean Jackson and Tyreek Hill. Waddle is really fast. He's a threat to score every time the ball is in his hands. For example, just look at this:

To put it simply, the man is dangerous. He uses the threat of his speed to pull the defensive back vertical and then quickly snaps off, makes the catch, and from there no one can touch him. He consistently explodes when he has the ball and makes plays that are simply rare to see anyone do, and would add an elite speed element that Jalen Reagor, the Eagles last first-round pick, can't touch. That's not even a knock on Reagor, I like him but just look at this!

The whole 'he's a threat to score every time he touches the ball' label is overused in my opinion, but Waddle fits it and then some. It's not hard to imagine an offense where Waddle is creating one or two explosive plays a week on designed touches, or just normal plays that he elevates with his talent. But Waddle isn't just all speed, he knows how to use it to set himself up to get open as well. Like in the clip below.

Waddle immediately stems inside, which the defender has to respect because if Waddle starts to accelerate there's no catching him. But when the defender bites, Waddle cuts slightly outside and away from his leverage, gets to his landmark and the football is there to make a play on, which he does. These types of plays separate him from the John Ross' of the NFL with the fact that he's an actual receiver, not just someone who runs fast and can catch.

Here's another special play that he doesn't need his speed to make. Waddle is the slot receiver at the top of your screen. Before the snap, the defender is playing with inside leverage, but that's bad news because the play call requires Waddle to work over the middle of the field. So Waddle accelerates outside, acting like he's running a deep route. And the defender flips his hips to 'carry' that route deep. But as soon as Waddle gets a step on him vertically he explodes inside cutting off his route and turning his defender around. He works himself open in a situation where others would fail and uses his technique to gain separation that leaves the defender clueless.


Plays like that one show up all over with Waddle, and that's why I'm optimistic for him at the next level. What puts him ahead of the other fast receivers you can get in the 4th or 5th rounds is that Waddle knows how to win without his speed, and simply uses that speed to take his game to new heights. He'd 100% be worth 12th overall or higher because of the value he can provide to the Eagles offense Day 1 in the short-hitting passing game, and if he reaches his peak he has the potential to be an all-time deep threat.


Devonta Smith

Smith is the more polarizing of the two Alabama teammates, and I just don't get that. I only see one real weakness in Smith's game, and that's at some points against more physical defenders he can get bullied around due to his smaller frame.


But when I say that's it, that's seriously it.


He shows the ability to win deep, win in the short game, create yards after the catch, elevate over defenders, break them down with route running, and can do anything you ask him to. Waddle is great in the short game with designed plays, but so is Smith. He'd be a weapon on screens, short-breaking routes, and would be a huge asset for Nick Sirianni with his ability to separate quickly. He can be a quarterback's best friend the same way Zach Ertz was for Carson Wentz in that whether it's a designed play, a scramble drill, or a normal route, Smith is always open. Smith doing simple wide receiver things in the short parts of the field would give Hurts easy passes and manufacture yardage. Smith is adept at being separating almost immediately off the line of scrimmage and that's something I want in a number one wide receiver. Being able to reliably win 1-on-1 matchups and create yards after the catch would be a breath of fresh air after having to watch JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Robert Davis, Deontay Burnett and the injured corpses of DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery play. Their only talent was getting injured or making me want to burn my eyes out. Plays like in the compilation below help to flesh out Smith as a complete receiver and would pair great in what we think Sirianni likes to do. Here's Smith being used within about 7 yards of the line of scrimmage.

I've spent a lot of time talking about Smith's short game prowess, and that's because it compliments the rest of his game so well. Where Smith thrives is with his route running, his footwork, and the ability to separate against all types of coverages in all types of ways. This is especially true in the intermediate to deep parts of the field. Below is Devonta absolutely ROASTING top cornerback prospect Derek Stingley in coverage. For reference, Stingley is almost widely regarded as a top 15 pick and an elite CB prospect, even though he's just starting his junior year in the fall. He's seen as a future lockdown cornerback in the NFL and he's only 19.

I'll go play-by-play from the video above.


Play No. 1: Smith comes off the line and freezes the CB with the stutter step, then establishes outside leverage and explodes that way. As the defender races to catch up, Smith fakes cutting the route off which leaves Stingley yet another step behind as he reacts to the move. When Tua can't locate the back shoulder fade with a defender coming in hot, Smith does an outstanding job at locating, adjusting, and getting control and coming down with a ball that shouldn't be caught for most receivers, especially not the ones the Eagles have employed.


Play No. 2: Smith initially flows inside, taking the CB with him. If this was a 1-on-1, Smith would simply get to his landmark and use his body to catch the football, keeping Stingley behind him. But, there's a linebacker over the middle of the field, who bumps Devonta in an attempt to disrupt the route. But as he does often, he fights through for the contested catch. For lesser receivers, their timing is thrown off and they can't get back in sync, but nothing fazes Smith. All over the field, he'll make contested catches that make you wonder how he did it. There was never a CB too tall or a LB in his face that he couldn't handle.


Play No. 3: It's so important in the modern NFL for wide receivers to be able to win one on one matchups. If I haven't made that clear, Smith excels at that. No CB has ever celebrated having to cover him alone. His footwork, explosiveness, and technical savvy at a young age make him a true nightmare. In the clip here, it's a got-to-have-it situation for Alabama. Smith initially accelerates like he's moving up the sideline for a go route, but as soon as Stingley starts to turn that way he snaps the route off in an instant and presents himself as an easy target for the QB. Remember in 2019 and 2020, when team's strategies for the Eagles on 3rd downs was to just 'double Zach Ertz and make anyone else beat you? Those days would be over with Smith, as leaving him on an island is a big play waiting to happen.


Play No. 4: Smith's teammate is known the most for chunk plays, but Devonta is no slacker himself. He's generally an underrated athlete, and it shows on plays like that one. Keep in mind: this is later in the game than every clip we showed before. Now when Smith comes off the line and he looks to be accelerating up the field, Stingley pauses because throughout the game Smith has used that to gain separation on in-breaking routes. So when he does truly accelerate upfield, he leaves Stingley frozen for a second, which is enough to gain the step he needs. With the safety out of position, it's a foot race no one but Smith has a chance of winning.


I keep emphasizing how Smith is a complete receiver, but I can't overstate how valuable it would be to have a swiss army knife in the Eagles receiving corps. Someone who can be used in the screen game, win matchups across the intermediate parts of the field, and oh yeah, he can also do this whenever he wants to:

Smith has to deal with press coverage here, which means the DB is right on him the entire way. He has to initially fight through contact and cuts outside. When Smith goes back vertically, the cornerback makes a fantastic adjustment to turn with him and stay glued to him upfield. But Smith separates with his speed, adjusts and catches the ball while staying upright, and managing to protect the ball from the defender.


Fit In The Eagles Offense

From a schematic standpoint, it's hard to tell what Nick Sirianni will bring to the table. He's preached flexibility and adapting to the personnel, but my best kind of educated guess is that he'll run some staples of the Pederson/Reich West Coast Offense we became familiar with but will look to add a juice to it by scheming to the talent on the roster.


All of that to say, there isn't a clear option from the coaching perspective. But how about their fit with who's already on the roster?


Fit With Jaylen Waddle:

There are many different ways to go, but with the Alabama speedster in midnight green, the Eagles will likely look to recreate some kind of lesser version of what the Chiefs did in 2020. Use your speedsters (Reagor/Waddle, Tyreek Hill/Mecole Hardman) to not only create easy yards with speed in the short area, as well as use them to create chunk plays down the field. Then your versatile tight end (Travis Kelce, Dallas Goedert) as a possession threat over the middle as well as some receivers that fill more traditional roles (Travis Fulgham/Greg Ward, Sammy Watkins/Byron Pringle). But, I'm sure you can see one obvious issue. The Eagles don't have close to the talent to match All-Pros Kelce and Hill, and even guys like Fulgham and Ward have been solid contributors at best so far in their careers.


But there's also a deeper problem. And that's that Jalen Hurts isn't a strong thrower deep so far in his career, and it's counterproductive to build a system around a weakness of your QB. His surface-level stats don't show a huge issue, but he repeatedly showed issues throwing into windows deep down the field, especially over the middle (according to Next Gen Stats, Hurts had a passer rating of 52.1 when throwing 20+ yards down the middle third of the field).

With the first play, Hurts is late to this throw. To clean upon it, he either needs to recognize Reagor coming open quicker or lead him further into the endzone to prevent the defender from breaking it up.


In the second clip, it's just a bad throw. He puts it too low for Reagor to do anything with. The Brightside is that those types of plays are fixable with offseason work on mechanics and throwing motion, which it seems like Jalen is doing.


But the third one represents a larger problem. Jalen Reagor does a great job separating and working himself open for a big play, but Hurts can't get the ball far enough and makes Reagor wait for it and leads him into contact. Whether it's a ball placement or throw distance problem, throws like that showed up a lot. He also scarcely attempted these throws, only attempting 8 throws past 30 yards in his 4 starts.


Those three plays don't sour my opinion on Hurts, and I didn't include some of the deep throws he was able to complete, and it seemed like he excelled along the right sideline especially. His deep ball was more than passable for a rookie QB in the situation Hurts was in. Hurts will likely be a better deep passer in year 2. But, Jalen's deep ball hasn't yet given me the confidence to use a premium pick and commit to an offensive philosophy that would require him to use it very often. It would be a little out there to fully commit to a system that doesn't play to your QB's strengths or his tendencies. An Eagles offense with Hurts and Waddle still has significant upside because of the explosive ability and a high floor because of the looks in space that could be created, but I'm skeptical of the fit.


Fit With Devonta Smith:

Yes.


If the Eagles were to draft Smith, They'd be using him as a traditional number 1 wide receiver, with him mainly working across the intermediate areas of the field. How does that pair with Hurts? Extremely well. Just look at the passing chart (via Next Gen Stats) from what's widely regarded as Jalen Hurts' best game, vs. the Cardinals.

A lot of intermediate (and some deep) targets working some of the middle but mostly the sidelines. Per PFF, Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 156.7 when targeting Devonta Smith from 10-19 yards down the field. It also shows on tape, as Smith is a pro at getting where he wants when he needs to in the intermediate areas with the tools he has. He also provides a cleaner fit with the Eagles existing personnel. Goedert as the versatile mismatch weapon, Reagor as the speed threat, Smith as the do it all wideout who can also win deep with contributions from players like Greg Ward and Travis Fulgham. The Heisman winner also helps out his quarterbacks with his prowess at the catch point. Smith has earned an elite PFF grade of over 90 in contested catch situations, as has similar or better numbers at the catch point than the number one receiver in this year's class, Ja'Marr Chase. He plays well with Hurts strengths and adding him doesn't mean you can't have some elements of the explosive offense that drafting Waddle would bring.


Conclusion

If you can't tell by now, I'm all in on Devonta Smith in midnight green. He not only provides the cleanest fit with the quarterback and other receivers, but he also provides Jalen Hurts a dependable weapon that could boost his development and elevate him to the next level. He doesn't have a true weakness in his game on the field, is useful in the screen game, and provides a flexible terror for defenses.


But if there is one knock on Smith, it's his size. At under 170 pounds, him succeeding in the NFL would be an outlier in every sense of the word. But you know why I'm not worried about that? Because I saw him take big hit after big hit, and he kept getting back up. He had every team's top CB thrown at him and he got a Heisman Trophy out of it. He led all of college football in yards after contact last season. When he's on the field, you see someone who is an elite football player, not someone who should be dinged because of his size.


And for his teammate Jaylen Waddle, I would also love him for the Eagles. The NFL is an offensive league, and adding a unique talent like Waddle would never be something to complain about. He has the chance to turn every play into a party and has a next gear of explosiveness that's rare to see.


If the Eagles target a playmaker early, they have two amazing options in Alabama teammates Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. If they pick one, I wouldn't complain about either. But Smith to me, represents the more complete player, the cleaner fit, and the brightest long-term outlook. And Philly would be a great home for him for a long time.

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