PHILADELPHIA -- Rookie receiver DeVonta Smith's NFL career is off to a fast start.
The No. 10 overall pick in the 2021 draft leads the Philadelphia Eagles in receptions (25) and receiving yards (314), ranking second among rookies in both categories behind former teammate Jaylen Waddle (27 catches) with the Miami Dolphins and the Cincinnati Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase (456 yards).
Smith didn't exactly sneak up on anyone. The Eagles traded up in April's draft to select him following a Heisman Trophy campaign in which he led the NCAA in receptions (117), receiving yards (1,856) and receiving touchdowns (23) for Alabama.
There were some concerns, however, about how he would transition to the NFL given his 6-foot, 170-pound frame. The previous seven receivers selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft measured two inches taller and about 40 pounds heavier (6-foot-2, 212 pounds on average), per ESPN Stats & Information. The last wideout selected that high weighing less than 180 pounds was Tavon Austin, who hasn’t started a game over the past three seasons and hasn't surpassed five touchdown catches in a single season.
But those who spent time around Smith during his pre-combine and draft preparation work at Yo Murphy Performance in Tampa, Florida, were far from worried -- a distinguished group that included Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss and linebacker Derrick Brooks, as well as Indianapolis Colts Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard. From the way Smith trained to the way he moved to his deep understanding of the game, it was evident Smith was unique.
"When you're young, you play off emotion and energy," Moss said. "Rarely do you get a guy that wants to be a student of the game at an early age. And I think that's what he wants to be."
Making an impression on Moss
Smith's explosiveness and ability to separate from defenders jump off the tape, but it was his strong desire to learn and improve despite his accomplishments at the college level that really struck Moss, who's part of Yo Murphy's draft prep program. When he arrived in Tampa in January, Smith was coming off surgery to repair a dislocated finger suffered in the national title game. He wasn't cleared to catch passes and couldn't even practice his 40-yard dash at first because his injured finger was on his stance hand.
"He couldn't run routes," Moss said, "so he was like, 'Is it OK if I just come and stand around and just listen?' That impressed me more because you're down there in the heat for an hour and a half to two hours and he's just sitting there, just soaking it all in."
One interaction in particular between Moss and Smith spoke volumes to Murphy, a former NFL wide receiver who runs the program. Moss had gathered a group of skill players together that included Smith, Dee Eskridge (drafted by the Seattle Seahawks), Anthony Schwartz (Cleveland Browns), Demetric Felton (Browns) and Dez Fitzpatrick (Tennessee Titans). Moss asked them an open question about how to decipher defensive coverages. The normally quiet Smith "kind of took over the conversation as if he was Moss," Murphy said.
"Not in a disrespectful way. But just really sure of himself ... You've got one of the best receivers in history and a lot of very talented other receivers that we had in our group. And the commanding presence he had in that situation, it was very apparent he was different."
'Maniac' versus the 'Slim Reaper'
Leonard, nicknamed "Maniac" for the energy he brings to the game, found a kindred spirit in Smith, aka the "Slim Reaper."
Smith is an early riser and would get to the training facility at 6 a.m. to work out. The only other person who would be in there at that hour was Leonard, who works out at Yo Murphy Performance in the offseason.
"He had that same mentality, that he wanted to work,” Leonard said this spring. “He has that winner mindset, and it was good to see some young talent come in there and push me: ‘OK, this is the young talent coming in.’"
Whoever draft Devonta Smith is going to get a special player man!— Darius Leonard (@dsleon45) January 12, 2021
Added Smith: "I built a relationship with [Leonard] coming in that time. I knew if I was going to be up there, he was going to be up there. Being with him every morning, seeing the way he trains, a guy like that in the NFL, you see it worked out for him -- he just got paid [Leonard signed a five-year, $99 million contract extension in August] -- so seeing the work he put in got him to where he wanted to be. Being around a guy like him, it just helped me out so much during the process."
Murphy, who played receiver for over a decade in the NFL, CFL, XFL and NFL Europe before getting into high-performance training, called Smith "one of the most mature and locked in athletes I've ever had."
His favorite story about Smith came toward the end of their pre-draft training, as the athletes were getting ready for their pro days.
"We hadn't really pushed our distance, and so I had the guys doing some sprints," Murphy said. "They had five sprints, and I wanted them to do the first three at about 65-75% and then for the last two, I wanted them to get up and go. And so I said, 'Smitty, have you done your full speed sprints yet? And he goes, 'Coach, I always go full speed.' Not in an arrogant way, but just matter of fact.
"I just sat down and thought about it. How he said it, it wasn't him being cocky or anything, it was just like if I asked him if the sky was blue. To him, it was like, 'What are you talking about?'"
That Moss mentality
There are physiological explanations for why Smith is able to do what he does on the football field.
"He's got such a mind-body awareness and a mind-body connection," Murphy said. "The impulses from his central nervous system are so in tune with the function of his muscle. The fluidity is ridiculous. He's a guy that you're very rarely going to be able to catch off balance. He understands his center of mass so well, and his body just kind of gets back to where he is structurally strong at. It's a very unique thing even in the highest level of athletes."
Even Smith's ability to absorb physical punishment despite his small frame can be attributed to being "structurally strong," Murphy explained, from his bone mass to the way "he has his rib cage directly over his hip."
Much of it, though, is about mentality. That's what Moss focused on with Smith: the right mindset to have as a receiver. The way you carry yourself. The way you attack a defensive back. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Moss faced some of the same questions about durability coming out of Marshall, making it easy to see parts of himself in Smith.
"That was my mentality of [fighting against] the things they said I couldn't do -- not going across the middle, I wasn't tough enough, wait until I take that first shot going across the middle -- all the little things the naysayers said. I definitely see the similarities, and I'm glad he does, too," Moss said.
For all the teachings Smith received, his greatest takeaway came from sizing Moss up.
"Both of us being long, skinny guys, just our frame and the way we get open. That was the thing that stuck with me the most," Smith said. "A guy like him, he was a little bit bigger than me, but the frame that he had, if he can do it, I can do it."
Moss sees common traits in himself and Smith, from "how slippery he is at the line of scrimmage" to how he is able to gain separation to the way he is "able to take that little lean, nimble body and be able to maneuver it and be able to stay away from that hard contact."
Moss plans to continue to work with Smith, with a focus on getting him stronger physically while hammering out weaknesses in his game.
"For me, just being around this young DeVonta, it's just more keeping him hungry and thirsty for more knowledge, and keep him hungry and thirsty to get better each year," Moss said.