It’s kind of amazing that the best receiver on the reigning college football championship team doesn’t have his own RotoViz article yet.
Then again, when that player weighs 196 pounds and gets top-20 buzz out of nowhere in January, I can see where some would tune him out.
On the latest episode of Rotoviz Radio I declared that Devin Smith is my #7 receiver prospect for the 2015 NFL Draft. In case that caught you by surprise, I thought it was necessary to flesh out the argument for Devin Smith, part of which includes the craziest stat from the 2015 NFL Draft class.
To generate a list of players similar to Devin Smith, I filtered my database to include anyone:
- Within a year of his age
- Within 10 pounds of his weight
- Within 0.1 seconds of his 40
- With a vertical jump of at least 36″
- Drafted in the first three rounds
|WR||Pick||F Age||Wt||40||Vert||3Cone||F msYDS|
(Note that Devin Smith’s pick of 48 is assumed based on the PlayTheDraft stock market. If you want to take your draft season experience to the next level and possibly win a Rotoviz subscription, sign up for free at PlayTheDraft.com and enter the Rotoviz Radio league.)
Considering this list is sorted by final season market share of yards, your first reaction is probably to notice that the top half of the list is pretty decent, while the bottom half is pretty irrelevant. Since Devin Smith is in the bottom half of this list, it might seem self defeating to lead with this table. However, if we can agree that people with similar size/athleticism have been successful in the NFL before1, then it seems possible that Devin Smith could have some success too, right?
The Craziest Stat
Where things get really interesting, in my opinion, is when we take that previous cohort and sort it by final season yards per target to see how effective guys are with the opportunities they get. For Devin Smith, he was absolutely lethal, to the tune of 20.7 yards per target.
No, not 20.7 yards per reception.
His yards per reception number is actually 28.2. We’re talking 20.7 yards per target. Here’s how the rest of the cohort fares, with the exception of Jerome Simpson and Andre Roberts for whom target data was unavailable:
|WR||Pick||F Age||F msYDS||F Trgts||F YPT|
Again, the table stratifies into good and bad tiers, which seems to happen around 9 yards per target. Obviously, Devin Smith annihilates everyone on this list in almost incomprehensible fashion. Considering that he caught 33 balls on 45 targets, and that a number of his targets weren’t really catchable based on what I’ve seen in a few DraftBreakdown videos, I’m left to conclude that Devin Smith is really good at getting open downfield and almost never drops a pass. I like that combination.
If you’re thinking, “Jon, you’re an idiot, the reason he was so efficient is because he got so few targets” then I would like to direct you to this chart, which shows final season targets plotted against yards per target for top 100 receivers since 2006. Yes there is a minor correlation between fewer targets and higher efficiency, but it doesn’t come close to explaining 20.7 yards per target.
Note that Devin Smith was excluded from the previous visual, just to give you an idea of what mere mortals look like. Here is the plot when you update it to include Smith. He’s the outlier at the top left.
If you’d like to connect some names with those dots, here is a more complete list, with the exception of a few FCS receivers:
|wr||Draft||Overall||F Age||F Targets||F YPT|
|Johnnie Lee Higgins||2007||99||23.3||116||11.4|
Sure, Stephen Hill is a disturbing name to see immediately after Smith’s, but I think Smith is a much different and more accomplished prospect, so I’m not getting hung up on that.
The Urban Meyer Effect
At this point I’d like to circle back on two elements from earlier in the article:
1) Downplaying Smith’s low market share.
2) Calling Smith an outlier.
To understand Smith’s ability to dominate Ohio State’s passing offense, or not, we need to understand the Urban Meyer effect. Since making his head coaching debut at Bowling Green in 2001, Meyer has built his offensive reputation on spread concepts and diverse use of skill players, which has made it difficult for any one player to capture more than a third of his team’s receiving yards. Here are all the top receivers that Meyer has coached since 2005:
|Year||WR Name||Age||Rec YD||Rec TD||YDS/G||TD/G||TRGS||YPT||MS YDS|
Interestingly, Devin Smith’s best season, in terms of market share was in 2012 in his age 20 season. We’ve talked before about how breakout age could be be the skeleton key, but even if it’s not, Smith has been solid for multiple seasons in comparison to other Urban Meyer receivers. In other words, Devin Smith’s lower-than-ideal market share isn’t necessarily a function of his talent, but more likely a function of his environment.
The final, and I think most interesting, piece of the puzzle is the way a great coach like Urban Meyer modified Smith’s role between 2013 and 2014. Sort the table by YPT and notice that, again, Smith’s yards per target is nearly double the nearest contender. What’s fascinating to me is that Meyer cut Smith’s opportunities in half in 2014, but used him in this very unique and efficient way. In an system that has remained largely the same for a decade, why would Meyer deploy Smith in a way that is unlike anything he has done before, unless he saw Devin Smith as a unique talent? If that’s the case, then I don’t want to be the idiot disagreeing with Urban Meyer, even if Smith scores a little lower than I’d like in one or two metrics. Considering his current rookie draft ADP of late second round (WR10), I think that’s a good value for a potentially unique receiver.
“He’s the best deep-ball catcher I’ve ever had,” Meyer said. “And I’ve had a few. A lot of those kids aren’t just playing, but they’re starting in the NFL. He’s the best as far as going to get a ball.”
If you haven’t already watched Devin Smith play, here he is against top 10 program Michigan State. Things get really sexy at the two-minute mark.
- Jennings, T. Smith & Holmes all have multiple top 24 seasons, while Sanders and Avery each have one (back)