DeVonta Smith had a very nice rookie year. Nobody would argue that.
He caught 64 passes for 916 yards and five touchdowns. He became the fourth rookie in franchise history to lead the Eagles in receiving, joining Don Looney in 1940, Keith Jackson in 1988 and DeSean Jackson in 2008, and he broke DeSean's Eagles rookie receiving record set in one fewer game.
He made a ton of circus catches, had two 100-yard games, caught a pass in all 18 games he played in, averaged a solid 14.3 yards per catch.
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A fine year.
If Smith simply repeats his 2021 production for the next several years, he'll be on his way to a solid career.
But Smith can get so much better, and there are reasons to believe he will.
In the big picture, Smith was not among the NFL leaders in any category. He ranked 29th in the NFL in receptions, 45th in yards and 40th in touchdowns. He was fifth among rookies in receptions and fourth in yards, behind Ja'Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts and Jaylen Waddle.
To be considered elite these days, you need to be in the 1,300-yard range. The only players in Eagles history to surpass 1,300 yards in a season are Mike Quick in 1983, Irving Fryar in 1997, Jackson in 2013 and Jeremy Maclin in 2014.
That's where he needs to be, and here's why he'll get there.
First of all, Smith was playing with a 1st-year starting quarterback, and even though he and Jalen Hurts had a year together at Alabama in 2018, this is a completely different offense and that was three years ago. As he and Hurts continue to grow together, you'll see their production improve. If you think about Smith's 2021 season, not a lot of big plays came easily. He made so many incredible contested sideline catches but if Smith and Hurts have the chance to grow together they'll be able to connect on more routine big plays in ways they didn't this past year.
Also, keep in mind the Eagles threw the ball an NFL-low 494 times this year, just 29.4 pass attempts per game, their fewest since 1992. The Eagles ran the ball so much there just weren't that many opportunities for Smith to catch the ball. For the sake of comparison, Justin Jefferson had just over 1,600 receiving yards, but the Vikings threw the ball more than 100 times more than the Eagles. That's a ton more opportunities.
Something else that limited Smith was the Eagles' desire to force-feed Jalen Reagor, with disastrous results. Reagor had 57 targets, and if those targets had been spread evenly over players who can actually catch a football and make plays -- Smith, Dallas Goedert, Quez Watkins, Kenny Gainwell -- it would have helped the entire offense, Smith included. The Eagles tried everything to involve Reagor, and that won't happen in 2022.
Smith got 104 targets in 17 games, and that was tied for 37th in the NFL. He had five games with four or fewer targets, which just should never happen. In games he had at least six targets, he averaged 63 yards. Over a full season, that's just under 1,100 yards. He averaged 8.8 yards per target, so let's say he was just 20th in the league in targets with the exact same yards-per-target figure. Hunter Renfrow was 20th this past season with 128 targets. With the same production, if Smith got 128 targets, he'd have 1,126 yards. What if he was 10th? Now he has 1,284 yards. More targets equals more production. The Eagles have to do better getting the ball in Smith's hands.
One other thing that will help Smith -- and this goes back to Reagor -- is that the Eagles know they have to upgrade the wide receiver room, and if they draft a WR who can contribute and/or sign a free agent who can contribute along with the anticipated continued improvement by Watkins, now all of a sudden, defenses will have more to worry about and they won't be able to slide all their coverage to Smith.
Plus just having a year under his belt in the NFL will help. We've all seen players make a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2, and Smith is the kind of serious-minded kid who's obsessed with working hard and improving his route running, beating press coverage, understanding defenses and catching the ball, and that should translate into increased production as well.
What does it all mean? How much better can Smith get?
DeSean improved 244 yards from Year 1 to Year 2, Maclin improved 191 yards, Jordan Matthews 125 yards, all in 16-game seasons.
In the same system for a second year with a presumably improved quarterback, a greater emphasis on the passing game and a couple more targets per game, an improvement of 20 yards per game seems reasonable.
That gets him to 79 yards per game, which is 1,343 for a 17-game season. So Quick, Fryar, DeSean, Maclin 2014 range.
That's where he needs to be.
And I have a hunch when all is said and done, that might even be a little low.
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