Futures: Roquan Smith

Futures: Roquan Smith
Futures: Roquan Smith
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Charles McDonald

As the NFL continues to transition into a pass-happy league, the value of the inside linebacker has dropped in favor of pass rushers and defensive backs. Even in the modern game, however, the truly elite inside linebackers can still change the dynamics of a defense. Elite linebackers today don't look like the Cowboy Collar-wearing thumpers of the '80s and '90s. Today the elite linebackers are fleet of foot and adept in coverage, though they can still bring the pain when needed.

Prolific linebackers need to possess sideline-to-sideline speed in order to match the growing horizontal nature of NFL offenses. The rise of option running games, screens, and run/pass options has forced NFL defenses to apply more speed in the middle of the field. Players like Bobby Wagner, Deion Jones, Luke Kuechly, Telvin Smith, and Lavonte David earn their praise by being able to choke off the sideline with their speed and instincts while making plays in coverage.

Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith is the next player poised to join the ranks of those stars. Exhibit A:


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Smith's instincts paired with his blazing speed allowed him to make plays all over the field for the Bulldogs this season.

One of Smith's highlight plays came against Notre Dame when he tracked quarterback Brandon Wimbush across the field on an option keeper. Smith plays his initial run fit (the play-side A-gap) until he has a vantage point to see through the line of scrimmage into the backfield.

As soon as Wimbush pulls the ball from the running back at the mesh point, Smith makes a beeline towards the sideline. Notre Dame's left guard Quenton Nelson (56) has no chance of getting his hands on Smith at the second level, and Smith easily beats Wimbush to the sideline. The recovery speed displayed here is absurdly impressive. These are the fringe, one-percent type of plays that make Smith an exception to the rule in regards to taking a linebacker high in the draft.

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Smith's athleticism also allows him to make game-changing plays in the passing game, both as a coverage player and a blitzer. When Georgia turned up the heat with their front seven and got a bit creative, Smith was usually able to get to the quarterback. Smith tallied 5.5 sacks in his final season. Here's one against Notre Dame, where Smith lined up in the middle of the field and then looped outside to the offense's left.

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It's rare to find an inside linebacker who can dip and turn the corner like Smith does here. He gets a bit of a free run, but he does a fantastic job of playing through the punch by Notre Dame left tackle Mike McGlinchey (68) on his way to the quarterback.

Linebackers have to be weapons against the passing game in 2018. Smith can get it done as a blitzer, and he also has the awareness to be a factor in coverage.


Georgia's pass defense is, schematically, a carbon copy of what Nick Saban runs at Alabama, which makes sense considering Kirby Smart's background as the Crimson Tide's former defensive coordinator. One of Saban's lasting legacies on the game of football is the introduction of pattern match coverages, where zone coverages turns into man coverage based on offensive route combinations. They can be a bit difficult to master, but when a defense has them down pat they can be effective against just about every passing play.

In the following play, Smith is in zone coverage as the ball is snapped. His responsibility is to wall off the middle of the field and collide with potential crossing routes. When the slot receiver takes vertical steps up the field instead of going on a crosser, he becomes Smith's responsibility in man coverage. The outside receivers go vertical up the field and get taken by the cornerback and the safety in man coverage.

Smith is able to mirror the receiver like a defensive back, flip his hips, and accelerate down towards the catch point. A linebacker with the ability to play man coverage in the middle of the field is hard to find, but Smith makes it look easy at times.

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When Smith has had to match receivers going vertical up the field, he has shown an ability to do that as well.

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This is rare, elite playmaking ability from an inside linebacker. Smith starts out on the hashes to the offense's left side near the 15-yard line; he's going to carry vertical threats to ease pressure on the safety playing over the top. His responsibility here is vital because Georgia shows a single-high look in the red zone, which puts a lot of stress on the free safety to make touchdown-saving plays.

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As the slot receiver begins his deep crosser, Smith effortlessly picks him up in the middle of the field. His ridiculous athleticism allows him to run across the field with a receiver; most linebackers would be toast here. Smith makes an astonishing play on the ball when it arrives at the catch point. These are plays you expect safeties and cornerbacks to make, not middle linebackers.

In 2017, Roquan Smith paired ridiculous athleticism with an innate ability to diagnose plays on his way to being Georgia's first Butkus Award winner. Off-ball linebackers of his caliber and skillset are rare players and should be valuable commodities in the NFL draft. With the increased importance of overhang players and midfield defenders, Smith should be a high priority for teams needing an infusion of speed in their defense. He'll likely wind up being a top-15 pick and it wouldn't be a shock if he's the best player from the 2018 draft class when it's all said and done. Truly exceptional players supersede positional value; Roquan Smith is clearly one of those players.


12 comments, Last at 17 Feb 2018, 11:46am

1 Re: Futures: Roquan Smith

These are plays you expect safeties and cornerbacks to make, not middle linebackers.

Is he actually a strong safety?

He's tiny compared to an Urlacher; he's both shorter and lighter than Kam Chancellor. (He's not entirely dissimilar from Ray Lewis, although still lighter)

It's not invalid to play a safety as a LB (VT has been doing this for decades), but it does limit you. He's giving away 5 inches and 40 pounds to a Gronk.

3 Re: Futures: Roquan Smith

Boy, who doesn’t give up 40 pounds to Gronk in coverage? I’d love to have this guy on the Eagles - either put him inside if he can handle it and move Hicks to the outside, or play him at Will and let him rush. Of course he doesn’t last that long unless we move Foles for a 1st.

9 Re: Futures: Roquan Smith

Roquan is listed at 6'1 225. For comparison, Lavonte David is 6'1 233, Thomas Davis 6'1 235, Ryan Shazier 6'1 230, Telvin Smith 6'3 215. Just to pick a couple of coverage backers off the top of my head. So even if his listed weight is inflated by ten pounds, it shouldn't be hard for an NFL team to put 15 or 20 pounds on him to put him in the low 230's where these guys usually play. And Telvin Smith's excellent season has shown that a guy can play lighter than that if you hide him behind a great defensive line.

12 Re: Futures: Roquan Smith

you tell me who does not give up 40 pounds to Gronk ? what a stupid post....like you did not read the article at all...maybe you read it again and delete your garbage ?

2 Re: Futures: Roquan Smith

God the idea of this guy on the Packers defense makes me salivate. Would change everything for them.

11 Re: Futures: Roquan Smith

Very impressive tape. Just to nitpick, though, in the next to last GIF, it looks like Smith jams the receiver well over 5 yards past the line of scrimmage (LOS is the 15, jam is somewhere around the 23). I'm not sure whether that's legal in college, but I've definitely seen guys get flagged for less contact than that in the NFL.