Impressive man-coverage ability against tight ends and running backs
Can drop into zone coverage
Could have issues defending downhill runs straight at him
Could have issues getting off blocks in the NFL
May not have the weight to play middle linebacker in the NFL
Summary: Back at the start of the 2017 season during fall camp, scouting sources were raving about Smith. They see him as a future three-down starter who can be an impactful player against the run and the pass in the NFL. Smith has been compared to the Falcons' Deion Jones and the Buccaneers' Lavonte David. Early in his NFL career, Smith could be on that kind of contributor for his NFL team.
Entering his playoff matchup against Oklahoma, Smith has 113 tackles with 5.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and two passes batted in 2017. In 2016, he totaled 95 tackles with five tackles for a loss, one pass breakup and two forced fumbles.
There is a lot to like about Smith for the NFL. He is a tremendous linebacker with excellent instincts. Smith has superb speed, and with his instincts, he is a heat-seeking missile that tracks down ball-carriers all over the field. Smith is very fast to the flat and shuts down perimeter rushing attacks. He also is quick to read his keys and fire to the right spot to make tackles. With his speed, instincts, and diagnosis skills, Smith is a dangerous run defender.
The key for any non-pass-rushing linebacker to be a first-round pick is his ability to excel in pass coverage. Smith fits that criteria as he is a capable defender at helping to limit passing attacks. In coverage, he has the speed, athleticism and agility to be a man-coverage option against running backs or tight ends. Smith also gets good depth in zone and is sound to be in the right spot while covering up receivers who come into his territory. Smith also is a dangerous blitzer who closes on the quarterback in an instant. Quickly in his NFL career, Smith should be a three-down starter who never leaves the field.
The negatives for Smith include that he weighs in the 220s. He should look to get into the 230s for the NFL. Given that size issue, he could have problems with runs coming straight at him and getting off blocks. To maximize his effectiveness, he needs to be protected from taking on a lot of blocks. As a pro, Smith projects to being a starter in a 4-3 defense as a Will (weakside) linebacker. In a 3-4, he could play on the inside, but should have a bigger Mike (middle) linebacker next to him to do the take-on jobs.
With Smith's well-rounded game and his excellent tape from the 2017 season, he could be a first-round pick. He should go quickly in the second round if he somehow slips out of Thursday night.
Player Comparison: Lavonte David. The closest thing to Smith in the NFL is Bucs standout linebacker Lavonte David. Like David, Smith is a speed demon who flies around the field making tackles in the ground game while also being good in pass coverage. They each have size issues, but make up for it with great instincts and big-play ability. David was a second-round pick, and Smith also will be an early-rounder. Other similar players to Smith are Falcons linebackers Deion Jones and Duke Riley, but Smith is a better player and prospect than they were coming out of LSU.
NFL Matches: Oakland, Dallas, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, New England and Philadelphia
There are a lot of teams that could be a fit for Smith in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Raiders have to improve the middle of their defense and the front seven. Smith would be an upgrade to their rush defense and pass coverage.
Dallas could use more linebacker talent, and Smith could give Dallas a long-term complement to go with Jaylon Smith.
The Vikings could consider an upgrade at Will - weakside - linebacker next to Erik Kendricks. Smith, Kendricks and Anthony Barr would give Minnesota a very talented trio.
The Steelers could consider adding a linebacker after losing Lawrence Timmons to free agency last offseason and Ryan Shazier going down with a serious injury. New England could use more linebacker talent next to Dont'a Hightower. Philadelphia has a good linebacker in Jordan Hicks, but Hicks has major durability issues. Smith could interest the Eagles to upgrade the middle of their defense.