Many in Raider Nation are clamoring for the team to select talented Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith with the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Despite his first-round talent, questions remain about his size and whether he’d be the right fit in Oakland.
Roquan Smith may just be the new prototypical NFL linebacker. With NFL offenses moving further toward spread systems, sideline-to-sideline speed at the second level is paramount.
In recent years, we’ve seen players such as Deion Jones and Deone Bucannon move from the safety position down to play as a “hybrid” linebacker. Smith is severely undersized, but is able to use his speed to consistently make plays all over the field. The one thing that is apparent over and over while watching Smith is how football-smart the guy is. Whomever drafts him, most likely in the first round, is going to get a great talent who, if utilized correctly, will create havoc all over the field.
Smith’s best attribute is his sideline-to-sideline cover skills. He might play at the linebacker position, but he moves like a roaming safety at the second level. What is most impressive about Smith is his ability to stay tight in man coverage against running backs who can make a two-way break on their route. Against more traditional linebackers, running backs can often feast when the play isolates their defender one on one.
In this play, we see the running back on a swing route to the left. He is the check-down option. Smith is able to get to the back despite lining up on the far hash mark at the snap. Smith uses his speed to close on the running back with control, wrapping him up for a loss on the play. This may look like a routine play, but Smith executes it to perfection.
Smith’s man coverage skills really show up well here, as he flips his hips, not making contact with the receiver on the crossing route until legally allowed to break it up. He projects well to cover running backs and some of the smaller tight ends in man coverage. But he will be undersized in that role against larger players such as Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.
Additionally, Smith needs to be careful, especially on screen passes. Here we can see he has the running back in man coverage, but the offensive line is able to leak out on the screen and get a hat on Smith. Smith is completely overmatched and taken out of the play, though he is saved by his teammate from giving up the first down on third and long.
On occasion, Smith can get faked out on play action. This one, in particular, is noticeable as Smith bites on the run fake, and the quarterback throws over the spot where Smith should have dropped back to in coverage.However, given Smith’s football smarts, this should easily be corrected by an NFL coaching staff.
As a middle linebacker in the NFL, it is imperative that you are able to stop the run. Smith’s run support skills, or lack thereof, is, in my opinion, the primary reason why he is better suited to playing the Will in the pros. Simply put: Smith is too undersized to hold up in run support as the Mike. After reviewing multiple full-game tapes of Smith, all too often an offensive lineman would engage with him, completely washing him out of the play. Smith wouldn’t just get pushed off the ball, he would get stonewalled up to 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
In the above clip, we see Smith get pushed back out of the play. The only way to nullify this is for him to hit his gap before the offensive lineman (or lead blocker) can get there. Doing this consistently is extremely difficult, but given Smith’s high football IQ, he will flash and beat the blocker to the hole at times, as shown in the following clip.
Given Smith’s speed and lateral movement, trying to beat him to the edge is downright impossible. As shown below, he is able to get from the far hash mark to the opposite side of the field to contain the edge. It’s a play that very few linebackers, even in the NFL, can make, yet Smith makes it look easy.
Because he is undersized, Smith can have difficulty wrapping up running backs individually. This may prove to be an issue in the pros, especially against bigger backs in short-yardage situations. If Smith has some elite defensive run stuffers in front of him to keep him free to get downhill, he will have no problems. Drafting Smith without having that solid line in place, though, will be asking for trouble in the run game.
As we’ve shown multiple times, Smith is a very smart football player and this continues to show up when he blitzes the quarterback. While at Georgia, Smith was asked to cover the running back in man coverage consistently. When the running back would stay in to block, he would move closer to the pocket but remain unimpeded to the back if they leaked out as a potential check-down option. Other times, when Smith was dialed up on a blitz, his speed allowed him to get to the quarterback a touch earlier than the time it would take most linebackers. Even when blitzing, Smith remained controlled, as shown in the clip below, where he reaches the QB and hits him square in the chest – a textbook hit to force an errant throw.
There’s little doubt Smith has the potential to be a stud three-down linebacker for the next decade. Despite the rave reviews by media analysts, teams will remain wary of his small stature and lack of strength in the run game. In the right system, where he can roam freely at the second level, Smith will be a Pro Bowl caliber linebacker. If he doesn’t have a stout line in front of him, he will struggle.
In the Raiders defense, Smith would line up at the Will, shifting Tahir Whitehead into the middle where he’s not as strong. Having both Bruce Irvin and Smith on the same side of the defense could be problematic, particularly in the run game, given both are undersized at their respective positions. That, along with the simple fact the Raiders don’t have those A-grade defensive interior linemen to keep Smith free, would make it somewhat surprising if Oakland drafted Smith at No. 10 overall.