Don't cut corners. It's a lesson DeVonta Smith learned when he was a youngster playing basketball with the older boys in his hometown of Amite, Louisiana. They wanted to push him around, bully him, teach the little kid a lesson every time he stepped onto the court. The only way he could combat their superior size, weight, age, and nastiness was to win with his brain, his determination, and his toughness.
So, no shortcuts.
"I learned to detail everything I did, be precise and win that way," Smith said. "I ended up winning."
He ends up winning all the time because that's what Smith does: When he decides to pursue a passion, he goes all the way. His is a very direct and simple philosophy: "If you're going to do something, be the best at it. Why would you want to be anything less?" he says.
The Eagles traded up in the 2021 NFL Draft to select Smith after, weeks before, trading out of the No. 6 spot in the first round to move down to No. 12. On the first night of that draft, Executive Vice President/General Manager Howie Roseman bumped back up to No. 10 and selected Smith, the Heisman Trophy-winning superstar from Alabama who defied double- and triple-coverage, whose performances week after week mocked the "experts" who said he was too small to thrive in the big-time spotlight at 6-foot, 170 pounds.
Doubt DeVonta Smith? The Eagles didn't. Not for a second.
"What's not to love about DeVonta Smith?" Roseman said a couple of days after the draft ended. "This guy's work ethic is legendary. His route running, his length, his hands, his speed. (Alabama) had four first-round picks at wide receiver on their team in 2019 and you look at the guy who has got the most targets on that team – it's DeVonta Smith. The ball finds DeVonta Smith. You get to a situation where it's third down, it's a big play in the game, and the quarterbacks are looking for DeVonta Smith. Elite route runner, this guy is just an adult. He's just somebody I think our fans are going to love. I picture a lot of (number) 6 jerseys in our stands in the fall and for years to come."
Smith has been everything the Eagles hoped he would be – and probably more, to be honest – since then. He is a tough, fearless receiver who is impossible to blanket in single coverage. Smith has great hands, unbreakable concentration, and the extremely rare ability to contort his body into the most incredible positions to make toe-tapping, sideline catches that are quickly becoming the stuff of legend. In his two seasons here, Smith has already put together a highlight-reel body of work that matches with anything in the history of this league, while setting the franchise record for most receptions in a season (95) by a wide receiver.
He's that amazing week after week after week.
"I'm just doing my job. When the ball is thrown to me, it's my job to make the catch and I've been able to do that," Smith said. "I'm not one to talk about myself. I just go out and play the game and do what I'm supposed to do – catch the ball and make big plays."
Smith has done that, no doubt about it. In his rookie season, Smith contributed 64 receptions for 916 yards (an Eagles record for rookie wide receivers) and 5 touchdowns. Smith played 82 percent of the offensive snaps, resting only because the Eagles forced him to the sidelines. It was a terrific rookie season, and yet Smith wasn't satisfied because, well, he's never satisfied. "There are a lot of things I can work on and improve on," he said after that campaign. "Routes, timing, catching the football. Everything."
See, that's just the way Smith conducts his business. If he isn't moving forward, he isn't making progress. And if he isn't making progress, he's not going to live long in the NFL, because it's a move-ahead business. If you stay in one place, Smith reasons, someone is going to pass you by.
So, in the offseason before his second NFL year, Smith went to work. He got stronger, he improved his route-running skills, he worked on his hands. He studied film. He watched himself and tore apart his game. He studied defensive backs and looked acutely at the way they were playing against him, trying to take advantage of those 170 pounds and drill him into the ground.
When the Eagles' 2022 season began, Smith was a better player. And the Eagles were a better offense, having added wide receiver A.J. Brown in an offseason trade. The big-bodied Brown, who muscles his way to create separation from defensive backs, gave the Eagles two No. 1-level receivers, and while some fans and media wondered how the two standout pass catchers would handle sharing the spotlight, both Smith and Brown understood what having the two of them on the field meant: Teams couldn't concentrate on just Smith, or on Brown alone.
They had to take their chances with both players. And that gave the Eagles a decided advantage.
"A.J. is a great player and I knew that he would help this offense and our team win games. That's what it's all about," Smith said. "We're in this game to win. I never worried about how I would be used or how many passes I would have thrown my way. That stuff takes care of itself. I just had to do my job and it would all be fine."
Oh, it's been fine. More than fine. Both Smith and Brown blew past the 1,000-yard receiving mark with ease. They complemented each other perfectly – Brown's "Swole Batman" playing the role of brawny, street-fighter receiver and Smith's "Skinny Batman" making all of those spectacular catches and providing so many how-did-he-do-it receptions. They're great friends, outstanding teammates, and perfect for the Eagles' high-energy offense as the team prepares for what Philadelphia hopes is a long and fantastic postseason run.
"Fun season, but a lot more to accomplish," said Smith, who gives his highlights in video clips on the field, not sound bites in the locker room. "We all know that. We have a special thing here and we want to keep it going."
To do that, Smith is going to keep chopping. He has a painstakingly precise pre-game routine that involves catching tennis balls on his back and over his head and in every impossible way you can imagine. It's about concentration. It's all about the details.
"Nothing surprises me with him," Offensive Coordinator Shane Steichen said after Smith led the Eagles with 8 receptions for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Week 16 game at Dallas. "He's an elite receiver, and those guys that work and grind every week to get themselves ready to play are going to do good things. That's what he's been doing, and he's continuing to grow as a receiver. He's seeing it well. The coverages, how to adjust his route in certain coverages and find the dead spots and the holes, and then he's making elite catches. He had some big-time catches on the end cut, he had one on the sideline and just having an awareness where the sideline is and getting both feet down, he's been very impressive."
Work and grind. That's Smith in a nutshell. He embraces it, every part of it.
"I want to be the best receiver I can be every day and if I do that, I'll be where I want to be," Smith said. "I just focus in and get it done every day, work hard, do my job."