MIAMI — NFL teams finally got Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith’s official measurements two weeks ago at the Indianapolis medical recheck. The results: he’s a hair over 6-feet and is 166 pounds.
The reaction (quite frankly an overreaction) centered on whether the Heisman Trophy winner is too skinny to become an elite NFL wide receiver or even a top-10 pick.
Smith, and to a lesser extent his college teammate Jaylen Waddle (listed at 5-foot-9 1/2 and 180 pounds), have been met with lukewarm reactions when mentioned as candidates for the Miami Dolphins with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, on ESPN and ESPN the App). The lingering question is how much does size matter for wide receivers?
Each team has a different philosophy on how traditional height-weight-speed measurements influence their decisions.
Some teams might pass on Smith worrying his smaller, slender frame will affect his durability, ability to win against press coverage and production over the middle. Other teams won’t care as much, concluding Smith was college football’s best player, stayed durable for four years at Alabama and consistently won against top SEC defenders who were playing press coverage (such as projected top-20 pick and South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn).
As for Waddle, he might be the draft’s fastest prospect with elite playmaking and run-after-the-catch ability.
Dolphins general manager Chris Grier indicated in his pre-draft news conference Wednesday that Miami will not be afraid to draft smaller receivers as they look to build around second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
“You always evaluate it. You always talk about it. But again, each player is their own case,” Grier said. “Those guys have shown that they’ve been good players at a high level of play in the SEC. The game has changed a little bit, and these smaller players are given more room and freedom to showcase their talents.
“The league has changed as well. There are more rules. It’s more of an offensive league. I think that what’s been evident is that there is a lot of smaller players that have become really good players in this league.”
When talking to scouts and coaches, there’s a clear-cut big four among pass-catchers: Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Smith and Waddle. Grier noted when the Dolphins made the draft trades to move from No. 3 to No. 12 and back up to No. 6, they did so with “a number of players that we liked that we’re comfortable with getting.” It’s a good bet three or all four players in the group above were included.
One projection scenario includes quarterbacks being drafted with the top three picks, Atlanta drafts Pitts at No. 4 and the Cincinnati Bengals use the No. 5 pick to reunite quarterback Joe Burrow with Chase (his former college teammate). If the draft goes this route and the Dolphins stay at No. 6, Miami will be left to choose between Smith, Waddle or offensive tackle (Oregon’s Penei Sewell or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater). Even a small trade down with a team looking for a QB, such as the Denver Broncos at No. 9, could still leave the Dolphins landing Smith or Waddle.
Joey Galloway has a hard time deciding which wide receiver he would draft first: Ja’Marr Chase or DeVonta Smith.
Sewell and Slater are logical options as a team can never have enough good offensive linemen, but the Dolphins spent a first-round pick (Austin Jackson) and an early second-round pick (Robert Hunt) on starting offensive tackles, and a fourth-round pick on a guard (Solomon Kindley) in 2020.
Miami hasn’t drafted a first-round pass-catcher since DeVante Parker in 2015.
Now is the time to surround Tagovailoa with more playmakers.
“When you’re picking where we are picking, you’re always looking at your team, and Tua is a big part of that. So as we build, you’re always looking at what your quarterback does best,” Grier said. “For us, it’s just looking for the right player, the right person, the right fit for our team as well as the mesh with the quarterback.”
For all the talk of Smith and Waddle’s limitations, they might be the two best fits for Tagovailoa because of their proven ability to play outside and slot receiver, winning with speed, separation and yards after the catch — all skills the Dolphins desperately need. Plus, both Bama prospects have the added bonus of being former teammates with Tagovailoa in Tuscaloosa.
As far as concerns for this group, there are some. Smith’s biggest question mark is his weight. Waddle’s size and his durability — with him coming off a fractured ankle in October — are small issues. Pitts (6-foot-5 1/2, 245 pounds) and Chase (6-foot, 201 pounds) are seen by many evaluators as the safest picks of the pass-catching group, but Pitts plays a traditionally less valued position and is an average-at-best blocker while Chase has only one year of elite production after opting out in 2020. Grier believes it would be “unfair” to judge opt-out players on their decisions.
But good teams draft players based on what they can do rather than what they can’t.
“Pitts stands out in that crew. I know Ja’Marr Chase plays a big-man game, but Pitts has 5 inches and 45 pounds on him. To me, he’s the guy,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “The other guys, it’s whatever flavor you want. They’re very different stylistically. When you talk about smaller guys, they’re better suited to play in the league now than 10-to-15 years ago because it’s a space game with different rules and more college-oriented schemes.”
It’s a good bet the Dolphins’ top draft pick comes from this group, and whether large or small, Miami will draft its playmaker based on his skill set and fit with Tagovailoa.