By Matt Waldman
Football is simple. It's a game of running, hitting, throwing, and catching.
And in this simple worldview of the game, Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith are incredibly similar football players. Both are big, strong athletes with the job of protecting the edge of a defense while threatening the edge of the offense.
Both are 6-foot-4 and within a two-liter Coke's heft of 270 pounds. Both were defensive ends sporting arm lengths of 32⅝ inches.
Both were seniors at Kentucky. And both possess the highest percentile skill in their roles to earn a shot at the top level of football.
But football is also complex. At the highest level of the game the smallest things make the greatest difference. And within the layers of complexity that is also football, Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith are incredibly different football players.
One is a future 3-4 outside linebacker. The other is a power 4-3 defensive end.
An edge defender's hands do the talking on the field, which means neither speaks alike. One has the vocabulary of Bamm-Bamm Rubble; the other is entertaining a book deal with a campus speaking tour from Random House.
One is a physical freak of nature. Few human beings in the world weigh 269 pounds, run a 4.56-second 40-yard dash, sport a 42-inch vertical jump, and are capable of a 138-inch broad jump – which, by the way, is one of the three best performances at the NFL Combine in 15 years.
The other didn't have a single eye-popping workout result. Compared to the freak, his body has a sign that reads "no outlet." But this maxed-out athlete is a football player's football player.
I'm telling you this because I originally researched this article to write about Bud Dupree's massive potential as a destructive force on the edge. What I found is that I couldn't take my eyes off Za'Darius Smith.
The NFL will want Dupree for what he could do. It will want Smith for what he can do.
Dupree's physical talents may overshadow Smith, but the 4-3 defensive end prospect displays enough athleticism to get the job done in the NFL.
No. 94 for the Wildcats, Smith's agility isn't a ho-hum thing. Watch him cross over and chop the arms of his opponent to shed the block and make a shoestring tackle of the running back.
He may lack Dupree's otherworldly athleticism, but there is enough burst to Smith's game to make him valuable. In the next rep below, Smith's burst to the ball carrier after shedding his opponent is palpable.
Combine this burst with a good motor and the skill to maintain focus on the ball, and you get sacks. Check out how quickly Smith closes in on the runner after he rushes the right edge and is initially funneled from the pocket.
Smith maintains his eye on the quarterback, splits his two opponents with a swim of the arm, re-establishes an angle to the passer, and closes fast. It's defined as an "effort play," the work of a prospect possessing a high motor, but don't discount the baseline NFL athleticism to get the job done.
He might be maxed out as an athlete, but many consider Smith a prospect with limited experience due to only five total years of organized football. In this regard, Smith's smarts for his short stint in the game are quietly as impressive a Bud Dupree's athletic potential.
Smith may not get much bigger, faster, or stronger, but he's likely to continue getting smarter at the position and the game. He already shines with his Hands Vocabulary -- what I call a lineman's repertoire of moves. The more ways a defensive lineman can win battles, the more consistent he'll be.
Watch Smith display the strength and leverage to anchor and shed his opponent to wrap up Florida's back for a minimal gain on the first play, and then see him walk his opponent into the pocket by converting leverage into power.
Did you see the number of moves Smith used at the end of the play above? In succession on one play -- not three different plays -- Smith uses a chip, rip, and spin. Although it didn't earn him anything notable in this instance other than my attention and appreciation, a lineman with this strong a vocabulary and motor will generate game-changing plays.
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It's not as flashy or exciting to the draft media and some NFL teams as a coveted athlete like Randy Gregory, but it could turn out as effective, if not more. Think of it this way: if Hands Vocabulary is a new language, the football field a tapas bar in Madrid, and Smith and Randy Gregory were sent there to get a woman to have a drink with them, here's how it would turn out:
Gregory would be the good-looking guy who can look a woman in the eye, smile, and only respond with Donde esta el bano? and there would be lots of laughter, non-verbal flirting, and a good night had by all. Smith would be the average-looking dude who could drop enough Spanish to compliment a woman on her shoes, tell her that the only things that exceed her beauty are her intelligence and wit, and then charm the waiter into convincing the chefs to make something off the menu for them. Also a good night had by all.
As with women, what attracts NFL teams can be an individual phenomenon. Smith may lack the dynamism of Dupree, but here are several plays where Smith displays a different dimension with each -- and often does it as a tackle.
Move Smith inside and he has some strength to grab, rip, and shed the opponent.
Smith against a guard often yields these results.
He probably can't work inside routinely without getting worn down, but a team can pick its spots and earn some worthwhile reps.
Then there's punching power. Here are multiple punches that lead Smith to the running back.
And much like the sack shown earlier, I like that when Smith slugs it out with a lineman, he doesn't lose track of the ball carrier.
As extensive as Smith's hands vocabulary is, it's not a flawless part of his game. He often strikes too high with his hands, which makes him a penalty waiting to happen. It can also prevent him from gaining the leverage he'll need to win.
A less correctable issue is Smith's hip flexibility. Despite good hand work, his tape often displays edge rushes where he cannot turn the corner the way that most NFL edge rushers can after they gain a similar early advantage on a tackle.
As articulate as Smith's hands are, the mere threat of Dupree going Bamm-Bamm on an offensive lineman offers its own range of benefits. If I were to show an NFL team one play to highlight the strengths and weaknesses and the stylistic differences of Smith and Dupree, it would be this one below.
Watch it the first time and notice how few steps Dupree (No. 2) needs to force the right tackle to open his hips to protect the edge. It's a lot like watching a cornerback cover Randy Moss in his prime and getting intimidated into bailing deep after just a few steps and giving up the first down on an easy stop route
Dupree is not only fast, but he's fluid. The open gate of the tackle's hips is enough for Dupree to slip inside. Two steps later the defender is a split-second from swatting the ball from the quarterback.
Two steps. Swat. Fumble.
If Dupree is the cheetah on the African savannah, Smith is more like the wily hyena. Watch the play again below, and you'll see Smith's contribution is perhaps more intellectual than it is physical. In fact, Smith's opening move begins poorly. However, the way Smith finishes the play is just as important to the Kentucky scoring a defensive touchdown as Dupree.
Smith lands his hands too high and he can't bend his hips enough to run a good arc, but he transitions well with a rip move and doesn't run out of the play like many edge rushers who don't get the angle.
Smith spots the strip by his teammate Dupree, sees the recovery, and works into position to knock off the pursuit angle at the 16, opening the lane for a touchdown. There's another play in this game where Smith earns inside penetration after a fumble, and uses the same hand-eye coordination he has against tackles and guards to recover the ball on the move.
These two plays reveal as well as any that Dupree has everything that Smith lacks: top-drawer closing speed, light feet, and flexibility.
Smith has adequate NFL burst, but look how sudden Dupree is here:
Unlike Smith, Dupree simply doesn't recognize how to finish this play once he gets his left arm fully extended on the lineman. At this juncture, Dupree has the angle to turn the corner inside and loop under for a good shot at the quarterback.
Smith is more likely to see this angle, but he lacks the athleticism to exploit it. This run below is a good example. Smith stands up the opponent early and reads the back heading to the line of scrimmage, but he needs one extra step after shedding the lineman to attack the runner and it's one step too many.
In contrast, look how much ground Dupree covers even though he doesn't reach his destination.
In essentially three steps, Dupree is at the outside shoulder of the edge defender.
Even without any displays of hip bend (which he has), Dupree disrupts the play.
Dupree displays a chop and a late bend inside to come within a step of disrupting this pass.
Although it should have been a sack, here's another disruptive moment.
Here's some of that hip bend around the edge despite not earning the sack.
Lots to see, but not much to say beyond the fact that Dupree is flexible, strong, and covers a lot of ground fast. Beyond a chop or swat of an opponent's arms, there's not much refinement to Dupree's pass rushing. Then again, there wasn't much refined about wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and his athleticism put him in position for a successful rookie year, despite numerous technical and conceptual errors with releases and routes that receivers lacking his physical advantages would not transcend as frequently.
Dupree displays smarts at the beginning of this run. The end displays the patience to stay inside, allowing the fullback to pass outside him and through the crease, and then attacking the runner.
Despite this patient start, Dupree fails to finish the job. There's no hitting power in this tackle attempt on Michael Dyer. Dupree fails to keep his legs moving after the initial contact, and there's no force behind his arms.
The lack of leg movement turns a hit into a grab, but it's also the angle of Dupree's approach. If he works across the chest of Dyer to the outside shoulder of the back, Dupree creates an angle where Dyer is forced to work inside -- where there is defensive help -- if the back wants to avoid Dupree. The actual angle by Dupree allows Dyer to bounce the play to open space, shed the end, and score the touchdown.
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The difference in the analysis of Smith and Dupree reflect the simple and complex truths about the game. Smith's game thrives on layers of technique, contingency plans, and persistence. Dupree at his best is the elegance of two simple traits that are so hard to find in a man his size: explosion and flexibility.
Smith may have more upside, but both forms of edge rusher are worth your appreciation.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for pre-order now. The guide covers over 140 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner the 50-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 -- 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2014) for just $9.95 apiece.