Although it feels off-kilter to highlight a team currently sitting 1-3, the Philadelphia Eagles’ 2021 campaign is one of future projection. Who belongs, who doesn’t, and which players can newly-minted head coach Nick Sirianni put his trust in moving forward has the become primary question. A season where expectations are rock-bottom, establishing a core Sirianni can move forward with will ultimately place the Eagles in the most opportune spot to compete moving forward.
Early in 2021, I don’t think you could expect much more out of first-round selection DeVonta Smith. While his collegiate career welcomed high expectations from the onset of his career in Philadelphia, Smith has been outstanding through four weeks, as his rapport with oft-criticized gun-slinger Jalen Hurts has progressed into one of the league’s most youth-inspired quarterback-wide receiver duos. The leader among all first-year wideouts in targets (32), the game plan of Sirianni, coupled with Hurts’ ability to both dink and dunk and stretch the ceiling of a defense, has placed Smith in a spot to garner massive success early in his professional tenure.
Surely his first of many weeks in which he will eclipse the century mark in receiving yards, Week 4 against the Kansas City Chiefs saw Smith’s full skill set on display.
A silky-smooth route-runner with an innate ability to gain chunks of space at the top of his routes, Smith was dominant throughout the afternoon amassing career-highs in catches (7), yards (122), and yards per reception (17.4). While many doubted Smith’s ability to compete due to a lack of functional strength—despite four seasons in the SEC—his early success has put skeptics to bed and allowed his ability to garner an ever-growing spotlight focused on his dynamic ability as a pass-catcher. Just one of five first-year Eagles in franchise history to catch 13 or more passes in their first four games, Smith’s role in the Eagles offense has continued to progress despite mixed results through four weeks.
An NFL debut that saw Smith catch six passes including his first touchdown as an Eagle, his next two weeks against the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys saw Smith fall quiet, but it wasn’t due to the fact that he was blanketed by opposing corners. Scouring through a box score to identify if a player was successful, or not, in a ballgame is a bad way to go about your research, as in both weeks, Smith found himself in opportune spots for receptions, consistently winning routes, but a wideouts production is a direct correlation of quarterback play, and in turn, an offensive lines ability to protect, and Philadelphia has once again proved to be a mish-mosh unit up front.
Whether it’s a screen pass, a lightning-quick slant route, or a vertical nine-ball, Smith’s deployment in Sirianni’s offense has become an ever-growing route tree that will prove to be increasingly difficult to plan for considering the ability of Hurts’ off-script ability, and Smith’s knack for finding open spaces with glue-like hands. With zero drops on any of his 32 targets, his sure-handedness within all three levels of the defense presents a nightmare for defensive backs to cover for extended periods of time. And while teams additionally must counter Hurts’ big-play ability, the speed of Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins, and YAC prowess of Kenneth Gainwell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see teams begin to bracket and double Smith in high-leverage situations as we move through the season.
While his explosive perimeter ability and savvy as a route-runner jump off the page, Smith’s progression in Philadelphia has presented the Eagles offense with a go-to boundary target with an unlimited performance ceiling. His continued growth, coupled with Hurts and a youth-infused Eagles offense, has placed Sirianni and Eagles brass in a comfortable offensive viewpoint in a season desperate for positives.
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