In 2018, new Steelers sixth-round draft pick Sutton Smith raised more hell than any other player in college football.
The Northern Illinois defensive end registered 31.5 Havoc Plays — a stat tracked by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly that rolls together sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, pass breakups, and interceptions. That was the most in FBS, college football’s top division, just ahead of career sacks record-holder Jaylon Ferguson and surefire top-10 pick Josh Allen.
The redshirt junior had 15 sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss against the run, four forced fumbles, and a pass breakup, a year after he’d led the country with 14 sacks.
But because of his size, Smith is not considered a top prospect. He’s probably not going to get picked sooner than Day 3, unless some team just loves him as an agile, edge-rushing linebacker who produced a lot in college.
At the combine, he measured 6 feet and 3/8 inches, 233 pounds. He was the shortest end at the combine by about an inch and the lightest by 10 pounds. His wingspan and arm length were in the first percentile at his position. His hand size was in the fourth percentile.
That he ran the three-cone drill in 6.75 seconds (faster than any defensive end in the class and one of the best times ever for a DE at the combine) won’t cure all the concerns that come with him being so small.
If he makes a career for himself as a defensive end, he’ll do it against precedent. The last end to play in a regular season game and be listed at shorter than 6’1 and fewer than 240 pounds appears to have been the Bills’ Greg Morton, an eighth-round pick in 1977 who played one season.
Unless Smith’s so good that he can break all the rules about defensive end sizes, a hybrid pass-rushing role could be the ideal spot.
At the combine, Smith said NFL teams had talked to him about potential moves to outside linebacker, strong-side backer, and the JACK, a dual end/backer job.
“What I like about it is it implements pass rush into it, and then it has a little bit of diversity with dropping into coverages and everything like that,” he said. “I like it a lot, actually.”
The NFL’s had plenty of good linebackers with roughly Smith’s 6’0, 233 frame, and his combine three-cone time was faster than any LB in the class, while his shuttle time would’ve been average for a backer. His 40 time was slightly below the linebacker average, but straight-ahead speed isn’t as important as agility for edge-rushers, who need to get around tackles more often than they need to sprint 40 yards.
Smith did not often play linebacker at NIU, instead settling in as a 5-technique end playing just outside an offensive tackle. But on some snaps, he’d start upright.
Wherever he lands, Smith’s college tape shows a dominant player with a lot of skills that could help him in any edge-rushing role.
Other than size, the simplest knock on Smith is that he played in the MAC, one of the worst conferences in FBS and not a pipeline of defensive front talent. Buffalo’s Khalil Mack is a glaring exception, but Smith is not exactly built like Mack.
Ask Smith about the quality of his competition, and he’ll tell you the same thing he told me: to “look at the stats.” Those stats confirm he didn’t just produce against Directional Michigans and Kent State. As a redshirt sophomore, he had five tackles for loss and a sack against Boston College, then 3.5 TFLs and two sacks at Nebraska. In 2018, he had 7.5 TFLs and four sacks across NIU’s games against Iowa, Utah, and Florida State.
“People never thought I’d be able to bull rush people, but yet I can,” he said. “I’m 233 pounds, and I can put a tackle all the way back to the quarterback. The shorter you are and stronger, you [have] a lot more leverage whenever you play.”
Here’s Smith strip-sacking Iowa’s QB after beating the right tackle:
Smith ran a 4.69 40 at the combine, above average for his position. He also plays fast, like here, running down Iowa RB Toren Young on a play that went to the other side of the formation:
Here he is edge-rushing and beating Utah’s right tackle and a running back, then chasing down a fast QB in the pocket for a sack:
“It was just insane, the amount of double teams I got this year,” Smith said.
His film’s not perfect. Earlier in that game, that same Utah QB burned him to the edge on a zone read for a long run after Smith appeared to hesitate over who had the ball. He had a handful of unproductive MAC games.
But you can see his considerable talent. And you can see him standing up like an outside linebacker would before that Utah sack.
There’s no telling yet how Smith would do as a full-time linebacker, but you don’t have to strain your imagination to see him being effective somewhere.
His college production says it’s worth it to see where he can fit.