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nfl draft: receivers

Among receivers in NFL draft, there’s just one small question about Heisman winner DeVonta Smith

DeVonta Smith (left) hauls in a touchdown pass in front of Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade during the national championship game in January.
DeVonta Smith (left) hauls in a touchdown pass in front of Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade during the national championship game in January.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The predraft conversation surrounding Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith always includes the same caveat: He’s not big enough.

Smith, who played four seasons with the Crimson Tide, finished his college career with 3,965 receiving yards and 46 touchdowns, setting both school and Southeastern Conference records. He also won the Heisman Trophy last season, the first wide receiver to do so since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991.

Smith’s route-running and ability to get open are top-notch. His numbers speak for themselves. Last season, he caught 117 passes for 1,857 yards and 23 touchdowns. The year before, he had 68 receptions for 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns in an offense that featured receivers Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, both of whom were drafted in the first round.

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But, at 6 feet 1 inch, Smith is only 170 pounds. He might be even lighter; he reportedly came in at 166 pounds at a recent weigh-in.

The concern about his size and frame seemingly has overshadowed his production.

“He obviously, as everybody knows, is real thin,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah.

Longtime Alabama coach Nick Saban, too, has acknowledged that Smith is undersized, although he argued that his weight should not be a reason to worry about his potential.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Saban said after the team’s second pro day in March. “When we recruited DeVonta Smith, he weighed 159 pounds and I wished he was bigger. Now, he weighs 170 pounds, and I think people at the next level are probably saying, ‘I wish he was bigger.’

“But I’m saying all that to say this: There are bigger people who don’t perform anywhere near how he performs. There are people that are bigger than him that don’t have the competitive spirit that he has, nor the competitive toughness. Tell me how many receivers are tougher than he is, that block better, that play more physical than he does.”

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Smith certainly hears the chatter about his build, a talking point that dates back to his time at Amite High School in Louisiana. He addressed the matter in January during his acceptance speech for the Heisman Trophy.

“To all the young kids out there that’s not the biggest, not the strongest, just keep pushing,” said an emotional Smith, holding back tears. “I’m not the biggest. I’ve been doubted a lot just because of my size.”

As questions have continued to mount ahead of the draft, Smith has maintained his confidence.

“I played against some of the best in college,” he said more recently. “I played in the SEC. I feel like it’s the toughest conference there is. I know a lot of people that’s bigger than me that have more problems than me, so I’m not worried about it at all.”

DeVonta Smith accepts the Heisman Trophy in January.
DeVonta Smith accepts the Heisman Trophy in January.Kent Gidney/Associated Press

Despite Smith’s slew of impressive performances — including 215 yards and three touchdowns in the College Football Championship — he is not the consensus top receiver prospect in this year’s draft.

LSU wideout Ja’Marr Chase is projected to be the first off the board. Some mock drafts have Smith also behind his teammate, Jaylen Waddle, though both are still expected to go on Day 1.

“What you get after the catch, with some of the shiftiness, and then just the home run speed with Waddle is why I ended up with Waddle over Smith,” Jeremiah said. “Talking to some teams around the league, Waddle had the fastest GPS of any receiver in the country. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you when you watch him. He’s freaky fast.”

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Added ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., “It wouldn’t shock me if Waddle went before Smith.”

Waddle was on pace for a breakout junior year, but he appeared in only six games because an ankle injury truncated his season. He finished with 591 yards and four touchdowns. At the time of the injury, Waddle was ahead of Smith in total yards and yards per catch.

Known for his elite acceleration and impressive speed, Waddle has drawn comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs speedster Tyreek Hill. He is an obvious threat before and after the catch, with his explosiveness and natural burst.

Jaylen Waddle finished with 591 yards and four touchdowns last season.
Jaylen Waddle finished with 591 yards and four touchdowns last season.Caitie McMekin/Pool via News Sentinel/Associated Press

While his speed makes him a clear downfield option — 11 of his 17 touchdown receptions at Alabama went for 50-plus yards — Waddle has enough versatility and athleticism to play in the slot or backfield as well.

There was great anticipation surrounding Waddle’s 40-yard dash; however, he did not run it because he is still recovering from his ankle injury.

Regardless of which player ultimately gets drafted first, Smith expressed an appreciation to play alongside Waddle for three seasons.

“It’s great knowing the guy across from you is just as good as you,” he said. “It brings a lot more fun to the game, knowing that y’all both are out there and you’re going to see some things that he’s going to do that’s going to be mind-blowing. It just makes you want to go out there and do those same things. It’s exciting.”

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Smith intends to ignore all the outside noise, from the uncertainty about his size to the comparisons to Waddle. Instead, he’s looking forward to the future.

“I haven’t come this far to just stop,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that say I’m not supposed to be here. I just keep pushing knowing that if I wasn’t supposed to be here, I wouldn’t be here.”


Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.