Each day leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, I’ll break down one of my top 50 prospects. In some cases, we had to make tough omissions because of injuries, poor pre-draft workouts or incomplete information. For more complete scouting reports on all the prospects, check out the Pro Football Weekly 2018 Draft Guide, which is available for order now.
8. Georgia LB Roquan Smith
6-foot-1, 236 pounds
Key stats: In his final seven college games, Smith was credited with 76 tackles (12.5 for loss), 5.5 sacks (for minus-39 yards), two fumble recoveries and 13 QB hurries.
The skinny: A high school wideout-turned-linebacker, Smith rose to elite national recruit status out of Macon County in Georgia and received offers from just about every top program in the country. After originally signing with UCLA, Smith reneged when former Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich took a job with the Atlanta Falcons the day after Signing Day. UCLA’s loss was Georgia’s gain as Smith chose to stay close to home and sign instead with the Bulldogs.
He played in 12 games as a true freshman, making 20 tackles. In 2016, Smith started 10-of-13 games played as a sophomore and led the team in tackles with 95 (also five for loss), finishing the season with back-to-back 13-tackle games.
Last season, Smith was nominated for several national defensive awards and won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker as well as being named the team’s Defensive MVP. The team captain started all 15 games as a junior and led the team in tackles (137), tackles for loss (14), sacks (6.5) and QB pressures (20). Also named 2017 first team All-America, first team All-SEC, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, 2018 Rose Bowl Defensive MVP and was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and Chuck Bednarik Award.
Smith, who turned 21 in April, declared for the 2018 NFL draft. He opted not to perform the bench press at the NFL scouting combine and pulled his calf on his first 40-yard dash attempt. Smith did not attempt a second 40, and he opted not to perform any positional work, the jumping drills, the shuttles or the 3-cone drill and only did linebacker drills at Georgia’s pro day.
Upside: Prototype of the modern NFL linebacker. Can do it all with no major weaknesses in his game, compensating for what few shortcomings he has. Speed and burst. Range is nearly sideline to sideline. Patrols a large chunk of turf and lets few pass his way. Aggressive but sure tackler — if you can find him whiffing on a tackle, please contact us. (We saw one poor one where Smith was stiff-armed in the first quarter vs. Kentucky in 2016, for the record.)
Excellent in coverage — that coverage ability is what sets him apart from other fine linebackers in this class. Outstanding ability to stick with backs and tight ends (and even some receivers) on the college level and could be very good by pro standards in that department the day he steps on an NFL field.
Here’s Smith covering Auburn’s 167-pound slot receiver Will Hastings about 25 yards downfield on a corner route and beautifully knocking away the pass — how many middle linebackers can do this? Even if the pass had virtually no chance of being caught inbounds, the range and playmaking ability are terrific here:
Great instincts. Reads his keys well and finds the ball. A good example of those instincts came on this play earlier in the Auburn game when Smith was slow to flow and — if you watch — is the first one on the Bulldogs’ defense to realize it’s going to be a trick pass. Smith plants his foot, takes a good arc to the ball and forces a hurried, off-target throw:
Disguises blitzes well, arrives in a hurry and makes his impact felt more often than not. Watch here vs. Mississippi State as Smith hesitates just for a moment and then bursts forward to pop QB Nick Fitzgerald and cause the severe underthrow:
Willing special-teams performer — contributed readily on kick-coverage units. Coachable and smart. Outstanding leadership traits and football IQ. Should be able to keep adding wrinkles to his game in the pros. Raised his performances on the biggest of stages — monster game in Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma and backed it up with outstanding performance in overtime loss to Bama in the title game a week later. Just has a knack for making plays when his team needs it most.
Downside: Small frame — a shade under 6-foot-1 and still below-average at combine weight of 236 pounds to thrive in the trenches full time. Arrived at UGA around 210 pounds and might now be close to maxed out. Arms are short and has trouble locking out and shedding big blockers. Doesn’t use his hands as well to disengage as he can. Size limitations could make him a weakside linebacker, even though his best work has been done inside in college.
Can be shocked and knocked back by good offensive lineman’s punches and will be engulfed by hulking guards. Watch here (sadly, the TV version is better than the all-22) as Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown uses his long arms to pancake Smith on the second level — credit to Smith for recovering quickly and getting back on his feet, but he can’t get enough of Sooners RB Rodney Anderson to bring him down until he’s gone for 45 yards:
Can play a tad out of control at times and even run into fellow teammates when attempting to make plays. Dialed-in focus can work against him — left himself vulnerable to a few vicious crackback blocks. For as good as he is in coverage, Smith had zero interceptions and only six passes defended in 40 games (nearly 1,500 snaps). Elite receiving backs and tight ends might have a physical edge on him. Asking him to check Le’Veon Bell or Rob Gronkowski as a rookie might be a bit unfair of an assignment.
Mobile quarterbacks found ways to slip past him at times. A bit nitpicky perhaps, but check out Alabama’s Jalen Hurts faking out Smith a bit here for a first-down run after Smith appeared to be back on his heels a bit and then a little undisciplined from depth in cutting off Hurts’ inside running lane in the national title game:
Has battled injuries — and fought through them all to play in 40 games but could have his career shortened on the back end for physical reasons. Had offseason surgeries on his left wrist in 2016 and his pectoral in 2017, and his calf tightened up at the combine. Only the first two were serious, but he’s had various physical ailments that have added up and given NFL teams a few things to think about.
Best-suited destination: Smith should be a three-down linebacker — and really a four-down linebacker, given his special-teams potential — in virtually any type of system. That said, he might be best suited as a “Mike” or “Jack” linebacker in a one-gap, fast-flow scheme and most certainly will be used in a variety of man and zone assignments in passing situations given his range and coverage instincts. There isn’t a team that couldn’t use Smith in some way prominently.
Quotable: “He’s a new hybrid linebacker. Not only that, but he’s a tremendous leader … [it] is about leadership. If you’re going to be a spokesperson for the team, you better hold yourself accountable and do all the things we ask you to do, and he’s done that.” — Georgia head coach Kirby Smart
Player comp: C.J. Mosley and Bobby Wagner
Expected draft range: Top half of Round 1
50. Oregon RB Royce Freeman
49. South Dakota State TE Dallas Goedert
48. LSU DE-LB Arden Key
47. Ohio State C Billy Price
46. Alabama S Ronnie Harrison
45. Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph
44. Texas A&M S Armani Watts
43. South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst
42. UCF CB Mike Hughes
41. USC RB Ronald Jones II
40. Maryland WR D.J. Moore
39. UTEP OG Will Hernandez
38. Stanford DT Harrison Phillips
37. Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard
36. Stanford S Justin Reid
35. Oregon OT Tyrell Crosby
34. SMU WR Courtland Sutton
33. Penn State TE Mike Gesicki
32. Colorado CB Isaiah Oliver
31. Georgia OL Isaiah Wynn
30. Texas A and M WR Christian Kirk
29. Alabama LB Rashaan Evans
28. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
27. Michigan DT Maurice Hurst
26. Texas OT Connor Williams
25. Georgia RB Sony Michel
24. LSU RB Derrius Guice
23. Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch
22. Florida DT Taven Bryan
21. Wyoming QB Josh Allen
20. Notre Dame OT Mike McGlinchey
19. Iowa C-OG James Daniels
18. Alabama DL Da’Ron Payne
17. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
16. Iowa CB Joshua Jackson
15. Louisville CB Jaire Alexander
14. UTSA DE Marcus Davenport
13. Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
12. Boston College DE Harold Landry
11. Virginia Tech LB Tremaine Edmunds
10. Ohio State CB Denzel Ward
9. USC QB Sam Darnold