UNDERSIZED. SCRAWNY. SLENDER. Scraggly. String bean. If the first thing you’re going to mention about DeVonta Smith is that he’s a walking billboard for skinny jeans, put some respect on his game and call him the nickname he keeps earning over and over: Slim Reaper.
Smith isn’t the shortest player in the NFL, nor is he the lightest. But when it comes to body proportions and the eye test, few athletes seem more miscast to play pro football. When the wideout first walked into the Eagles’ locker room two seasons ago, veterans wondered ifPhiladelphia had wasted the tenth pick in the 2021 draft. “I remember everyone being like, ‘Fuck, he is tiny,’ ” says Alex Singleton, a former Philly linebacker who now plays for Denver. “Like, if someone hits him, he’s going to get fucked. Then, you know, he makes every play.”
In 2021, Smith set a franchise rookie record with 916 receiving yards. Last season he made a team-record 95 catches and ranked eighth in the league in receiving yards (1,196). He was one of 22 receivers to clear 1,000. Every other receiver in that elite bunch weighed at least 182 pounds. Smith packs a mere 170 pounds onto his six-foot frame.
That lack of bulk hasn’t hurt his durability. Smith can withstand big hits, and he proved it in the opening moments of Super Bowl LVII in February, catching a pass from Jalen Hurts and getting walloped by safety Justin Reid as he ran down the left sideline. His body whipped to the ground after the crushing hit—and he bounced right back up. Smith has played 85 percent of the Eagles’ offensive snaps since entering the league, third-best on the team.
“The biggest thing is to understand your game,” Smith says. Not that he had that figured out early on. As a high schooler in Amite, Louisiana, Smith wanted to bulk up so badly that anytime he saw his reflection, he’d do ten pushups. None of it helped him gain any weight. He clocked in at just 166 pounds before the 2021 NFL draft.
But as he’s made highlight play after highlight play, he’s grown more comfortable with his game. He even ignoresEagles coaches, who encourage their receivers to put their hands on opposing defenders at the start of every play, essentially “sparring” with them to create room to run each route. “I just straight up tell them, ‘No, it’s not going to happen,’ ”Smith says. “I’m going to do what I’m good at, and I’m going to stick with it….I want to feel comfortable that I’ve done the right things the way I wanted to.”
Smith prefers to use his single-leg quickness and explosiveness to create separation against defenders, and he leans into these qualities when training. When bigger bodies try to decelerate or change direction, they often need a step or two to control their momentum.
Smith can decelerate his entire body with either leg. He can also leap off either leg at almost any angle, a skill that was on display when he played the Washington Commanders last September. Just before halftime, he sprinted 44 yards downfield, then leaped between two defenders and pirouetted his torso to make a catch with his back just shy of the goal line.
He blends that athleticism with a repertoire of well-honed fakes. When he knows there’s no chance of getting the ball, Smith will sometimes pump his arms hard, as if going full tilt, while slowing to a stutter step with his legs, leaving defenders uncertain whether he’s trying to run past them or slow down. If the ball does come his way, he turns on the afterburners to blow past everyone.“Deception: Just make it all look the same,” Smith says. “I never go up against anybody and feel like I don’t have a chance. I’m going to get open.”
Despite the big numbers and big plays, though, he knows he’s still often underestimated. And he’s happy to take advantage of that. “Sometimes, you know, it’s delivering a message to let them know that this is not what you think it is,” he says. “I’m small, but you’re not going to bully me.”
You’d have to catch him first.
- Smith loves this tennis ball drill: Someone stands 5 yards away from him, then drops a tennis ball; Smith must run and catch it before it bounces twice, then sprint 5 more yards, training reaction time, agility, and coordination. Do 4 reps per set, then rest 90 seconds; do 3 sets.
- To build single-leg strength and athleticism, Smith does single-leg bounds. To do them, stand on your right foot. Bend your right knee, then leap forward, landing on your right foot. Do this for 10 yards. Do 2 sets per side.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Men’s Health.
Matt Gagne is a senior editor for sports at The Messenger. He previously worked at Sports Illustrated, SportTechie, and Men’s Health. He lives in New York.