A couple of weeks ago, Sports Illustrated NFL writer Doug Farrar was nice enough to invite me to appear on his fantastic podcast, to talk about the draft eligible defensive linemen in this year's class. During the course of our conversation, he hipped me to a guy by the name of, you guessed it, Preston Smith, who played ball at Mississippi State. This Smith kid had flown totally under my radar, so I hadn't watched a lick of film on him. However, I made it a point to look him up and see what he was all about as soon as the call was over.
For this breakdown, I went to Draft Breakdown and watched Smith play against LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn and Kentucky. Those represented the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh games of Mississippi State's season, respectively.
Boy, am I glad I did, because Smith is pretty damn fun to watch on film. He is incredibly versatile -- I watched him play everything from a stand-up rush linebacker in a 3-4 type scheme, to a zero nose heads-up on the center on passing downs, and pretty much everywhere in between. What made him extra fun to watch is that he kicked ass pretty much everywhere he lined up.
Let me say right off the bat, however, that I don't think Smith is going to be a first-round pick. While he played well in several different spots, I'm not sure he has a definite position right now. He has really good size at 6'5, 271 pounds, but he is a little too light in the ass to be a full-time starter inside. And while he ran a very respectable 4.74 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, I didn't see Smith win with speed rushes very often from the edge in four games.
Don't get me wrong, Smith made some nice moves and even picked up a couple of sacks rushing while against offensive tackles, but most of the time he won those game with power and/or inside moves. I am always leery of projecting success on the next level for defensive ends who don't have a reliable outside move, no matter how fast they are.
That said, Smith did play powerfully as a defensive end, and as I said, showed a nice array of power pass rushes from the edge. While 4.74 is nothing special for a defensive end, it's a blazing time for an interior defensive lineman. It was also evident on film that Smith had a real knack for rushing inside, particularly from that zero nose position. He has this nasty arm over, usually going left of the center from the defense's view, that consistently won during those four games.
It was the little details of those rushes that impressed me the most. I could tell Smith spent a lot of time working on that arm over. His hands were always nice and compact, making the move more efficient. He was always quick off the snap of the football, which put pressure on centers to keep up. He also did a great job of turning his shoulders while he slipped past centers, giving them less surface area to punch or grab. That consistent violent and efficient motion made that move so effective for him.
But look, regardless of how Smith got it done, the dude had nine sacks last year, so obviously he was doing something right.
Truthfully, Smith may end up being one of those guys who plays 10 years or more, but is more of a swing guy than a starter for much of his career. I know the NFL is considering allowing more active players on game day in the coming years, but for now they only get to use 46 out of their 53 players during games. Smith could be one of those defensive linemen that NFL teams like because they can play inside and outside while using just one active roster spot, allowing them to add depth elsewhere.
I'm not saying for sure that Smith can't become a long-term starter as a defensive end or three-technique defensive tackle. What I am saying is even if he doesn't, he can still have real value for most teams. I am a big fan of how he plays run defense as a defensive end and how he pass rushes inside. Who knows, maybe a team that runs that Seattle style of 4-3 defense will take him and allow him to play that Michael Bennett spot, where he plays defensive end on run downs and kicks inside on passing downs. That would probably be the most favorable scenario for Smith, but only so many teams employ that type of defense (for now, anyway).
As a natural fit, I don't know that I like Smith anywhere but at five-technique in a 3-4 scheme because I'm not convinced that two-gapping inside will ever be his thing. He could succeed in a 3-4 in which defensive linemen are asked to stunt laterally, but I would be concerned about how he holds up against the run. Smith isn't a small dude by any means, but his 24 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press confirmed what I saw on film: He has good functional strength, but isn't overwhelming. Today, 271 pounds is not quite enough weight for most guys to anchor down in a two-gap system. Hell, I saw some college tight ends push him off the ball every once in a while, so I can't imagine what some NFL-level guards might do. Smith may even struggle as a five-technique, because two-gapping NFL offensive tackles isn't exactly easy, either.
That Smith is not scheme transcendent will hurt his draft stock a bit, but here is the thing about him: He is simply a good football player. He consistently found ways to make plays against the pass and the run in the four games I watched, no matter where he lined up or who he was going against. It is worth noting that he rushed against highly rated left tackles La'el Collins and Cedric Ogbuehi in two of the four games I watched and more than held his own. In fact, he technically beat Ogbuehi for a sack on a play in which he didn't win initially but kept fighting until he got to the quarterback. He may not be special in any one given area, but he is going to make a ton of plays for whomever takes him next week.
If there was one thing that did concern me about Smith's play, it was the fact that he loafed at times. A loaf is when a guy does not give 100 percent throughout a play. It could be that you see him slow down when the ball is still in play, or it could be that you see him speed up once he realizes a play isn't over, but either way a loaf is usually not a good thing. I've said before that I have a thing against guys who don't bust their asses play in and play out. In defense of Smith, however, he and his team were playing against hurry-up offenses during the times he looked most gassed.
Having played against those kinds of schemes -- maybe not for a whole game, but at least on two-minute drives, etc. -- I know how hard it is to haul ass to the ball, try to catch your breath between plays, then turn around and try to do a good job of playing the next play. I wish I had at least one more game to watch just to see what his effort looked like. I can't ever overlook something like that even in situations where I empathize with the player.
Being lazy might be the number one reason that some guys wash out of the NFL, no bullshit, especially guys on the offensive or defensive lines. Some guys get to the NFL and everything that used to come so easy to them, because of their natural ability, is now much more difficult to pull off consistently. A guy like Smith, who is probably going to need to cross train at different positions to maximize his abilities, is going to need to be a workhorse who doesn't mind doing a little extra to get ahead of the competition.
Now I don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill here because Smith didn't loaf a lot, just enough for me to notice. Conversely there were plays in which Smith showed a very good motor in each game, so I think he understands what kind of effort is required to be successful. It just appeared that sometimes he didn't have any fucks to give about all that.
One other thing I liked about Smith was that he has long, 34-inch arms, and he knows how to use them. I saw him plenty of times come off the ball, get full extension with his arms, jack up the opposing tight end, then escape off that block and make a play. Other times when he kicked inside, he would get full extension with his arms when he lined up as a zero nose which allowed him to get some good push on the center. I loved seeing that on film, and that is really going to help him make plays at the next level.
The major question now is when do you take him?
I look at the draft this way: It's 32 NFL teams trying to wait to the very last possible second to select the guy they really want before they believe someone else will take him. It's a gamble because sometimes you think long and think wrong and somebody else ends up taking a guy you covet, and sometimes you reach.
Because Smith is not special at any one given thing, I think he is going to be devalued in the draft a little bit. I mean, yeah, it's cool that he got all that pressure as a zero nose tackle, but how many teams on the next level actually use their nose tackles that way, even on passing downs? Not many. While I do believe Smith is going to be a very good player for many years, barring injury, you may be able to get him late in the second round or early in the third, or even later depending upon how the first two rounds go.
Ultimately, where Smith goes is going to matter a lot more than when for his career. For his sake, I'd rather see him go in a later round to a team that plans on moving him around a lot on the defensive line and maximizing his potential, than earlier to a team whose scheme he doesn't fit.
Having only watched Preston Smith in four games, I may be wrong about where he ends up being selected in the draft, but I am confident I will be right about my projection of what he will be as an NFL player. With his versatility, he is going to make some team very happy that they drafted him, no matter what round he ends up going.