They loved him. They wanted him. They were not sure if they were in prime position to get him.
That was the Giants and their affection for DeVonta Smith. That was also the Eagles and their affection for the same player.
As these two NFC rivals, heading in opposite directions (Eagles up, Giants down) get set to square off for the first time this season, Sunday at MetLife Stadium, the Eagles, who landed the prize, will get to put Smith on the field wearing green. And the Giants will be tasked with finding a way to stop a player they coveted and failed to make a move to get.
“I’m glad that we traded up because he’s really special to this team and I’m sure glad we have him on this football team,’’ Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni said.
The Giants wanted Smith on their team. After their crummy 6-10 record in 2020 earned them the 11th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, there were several players the Giants were interested in selecting — players they believed had a realistic chance to still be on the board after the top 10 picks. They were high on cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II. They were high on Smith and Jaylen Waddle as wide receivers. They figured (correctly) offensive tackle Penei Sewell would be gone.
As the first round progressed, the players the Giants prioritized were getting plucked off. They anticipated the Cowboys, at No. 10, would not take a receiver (they already had plenty of talent at that position) and would instead focus on improving their shabby defense. The Giants thought right, but did not expect what happened with Dallas on the clock. The Eagles, sitting at No. 12, called the Cowboys and a rare trade between division rivals was discussed and finalized. The Eagles took Smith at No. 10, and just like that, the Giants realized that instead of slipping the Heisman Trophy winner into their offense, they were going to have to find a way to stop him twice a year for the foreseeable future.
“We were doing whatever we needed to do to get to the player that we really coveted in that draft, which was DeVonta Smith,’’ Sirianni said. “I’m sure glad we have him.’’
It was a blow to the Giants. Smith was the last of a group of players the Giants deemed worthy of a top-11 pick. General manager Dave Gettleman made the first trade-down of his NFL career when the Bears wanted to come up to No. 11 to take quarterback Justin Fields. The Giants moved down to No. 20 and selected Kadarius Toney, a slot receiver from Florida they had rated highly, but a notch below Waddle and Smith.
Toney has struggled through a disjointed rookie year, battling through injuries and often stymied as to where he fits in an offense that has stumbled around, leading to head coach Joe Judge on Tuesday firing offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Toney is missing practice time again this week — this time it is due to a quad contusion. In nine games, he has 35 receptions for 392 yards, and he has yet to score his first NFL touchdown.
There were questions about Smith’s durability — he is rail-thin — but he has not missed a game for the Eagles, who at 5-6 are surging. Smith leads his team with 46 receptions for 664 yards and four touchdowns. He looks completely NFL-ready. Toney, with more rough edges, does not.
“I can’t get on this bus without him,’’ Sirianni said. “We need DeVonta Smith because he’s one of our toughest guys. He’s tough, he’s smart, obviously his talent speaks for itself and what he did in college and what he continues to do in the NFL.
“He’s very instinctive and I think that’s a great separator in a lot of people in this league. All the guys in the league have talent. The guys that are instinctive just have a knack to make plays. So DeVonta, I just feel like he’s light years ahead of other rookie wide receivers that I’ve coached in the sense that he really understands how to attack a defensive back.”
The Giants, for the first time, will see what they missed out on.
“I think he’s crafty, he’s athletic,’’ James Bradberry, the Giants’ best cornerback, said. “I watched his releases in his route running. I feel like he runs very good routes. He’s just a savvy guy for a young guy in this league. He has some smoothness to him.’’
The Eagles get to enjoy that smoothness. The Giants get to see what they missed out on.
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