Aldon Smith, DL/OLB, Missouri
RS Sophomore, 6’5″, 260 lbs.
For this entry I’ll shift back to talking about the top defensive front seven prospects in the country. This one will be about Missouri’s star sophomore defensive end Aldon Smith. Starting with the basics, Smith entered this season coming off a remarkable redshirt freshman season where he registered 64 tackles, 19 TFLs, and 11.5 sacks, the last number good for the single season record at Missouri. He broke his fibula in third game of the season against San Diego State. Fortunately, he’s expected to return to play against Oklahoma this weekend. Regardless, he’d gotten off to another fast start this year with three sacks in three games, giving him a remarkable 14.5 career sacks in 16 games.
At Missouri Smith plays primarily as the featured, weak side pass rusher. However, he has the versatility to play either side in the NFL and even lines up inside at 3 technique on passing downs in college. In terms of build, Smith is a very long prospect with a good body type for the defensive end position. He’s extremely long armed with big hands and good musculature through his joints. He’s a tight skinned athlete with a solid base, is narrow-waisted with a good bubble. He’s not as bulky or powerfully built as both Robert Quinn and Da’Quan Bowers are, but Smith posseses a lot of room on his frame to add size in the NFL.
In terms of his intangible reputation, Smith is known to his coaching staff as one of the hardest working players on the team. He seems to have a good reputation with his teammates as well, and is a tough player that flashes elite playmaking ability. He plays with an excellent motor, playing until the whistle and makes a lot of dynamic plays by outworking his opponent.
Here’s a youtube video by AloAloysius of Smith’s stunning 2009 performance against Nate Solder and Colorado: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTyDrwMkV-c
Solder is no slouch as a prospect. He’s one of the elite athletes in the nation at the offensive tackle position. But he got more than he could handle in this game versus Smith. One of the first things you’ll notice about Smith from this game is just how coordinated and skilled he is with his hands and feet. He’s got large mitts and he uses them very well. Smith is a young player, probably only 19-20 in this video, yet there is a distinct polish to his game already. A lot of that comes from his ability to use his hands effectively to control and shed blockers. Plus his anchor strength is pretty good when run at. In the first play of the video Smith is the point of attack. Through the play, he’s able to maintain his balance, shuffle his feet to avoid getting put on skates, disengage his opponent, and then make the play. It was just sound, textbook containment. On the next play, Smith shows of good balance and awareness as he protects his legs against the cut block and nearly gets up-field in time to register a pressure. His long arms give him a considerable leverage advantage and he looks good extending them into his opponent. He also plays with good power and flexibility and can bend his knees and drive. Smith eventually gets to the point in the second half where he’s able to push Solder around at will because of how much more, sudden, balanced, and skilled with his hands and arms he is. He looks like he has the potential to be a very good stack and shed defender in the NFL.
As a pass rusher, Smith shows off a lot of versatility do to his functional strength, range, and his exceptional athleticism. Plus he demonstrates a considerable amount of polish in his repertoire of moves for such a young player. Again, I think you can chalk this up to his excellent hand-eye coordination. In terms of what he’s able to do off the edge, Smith possesses a strong speed rush and is capable of threatening the edge of the pocket and taking wider loops. However, unlike most elite college edge rushers, this is not Smith’s primary move and he clearly prefers to work angles to the quarterback. His first few steps are good but not elite. He’s considerably faster and more explosive off the snap than Adrian Clayborn is, but he doesn’t look as blindingly fast as Quinn and Bowers do. However, Smith is a far more efficient rusher than both Quinn and Bowers. He boasts an array of moves and a real savvy for setting up offensive linemen with his inside counter and, in general, Smith is very comfortable working back inside on a play. In fact, all three of his sacks in this video came on inside moves. The first came on a pretty juke and inside counter that sent Solder sprawling on his rear. At the 2:26 mark of the video Smith lines up in a two technique over the left guard, dips his shoulder and rips through to the quarterback and makes an athletic tackle for the sack. Later on fourth down (the 2:38 mark of the video), he lines up inside again in a three technique, this time over the right guard. He shows off his explosive quickness and craftiness by using an old swat and swim move to get free. Then he quickly finds the football (the quarterback tries desperately to step up and avoid the rush) and then Smith uses his elite frame and impressive athleticism to make the one-armed diving sack.
I love his final sack because it demonstrated so many positives in a single play. First, it was in a critical situation on a fourth down where the QB almost broke free. When you look over the game, Smith sure makes a lot of brilliant plays in key situations (on big third downs). From this it’s clear that Smith possesses very good instincts for the game and knows his way around a football field. He rarely has trouble finding the football, and excels at using his long arms to shut down passing lanes. He deflects an awful lot of passes with his coordinated hands, and he looked like Javale McGee blocking that third down pass near the end of the video. He also had a nice fumble recovery in this game where he was the first man to react to the ball on the ground and he quickly swooped on it. Smith doesn’t seem to get snookered often, he rarely spends any time on the ground, and he just generally seems to have a good head for the game.
Also, the sack showed off his elite length, impressive tackling, and ability to make plays off his frame. Smith isn’t the impact hitter that some other elite passrushers like Quinn or Akeem Ayers are. But he is a solid wrapper capable of making difficult tackles, and is explosively strong enough to pull ball carriers down with his arms. He also owns impressive closing speed and looks natural when he gears up and makes plays in pursuit.
I do have some concerns about Smith. First and foremost, I’d like to see how he performs against a double team. Smith was a freshman in this video, and playing with his partner in crime Jacquies takes an awful lot of pressure off of Smith since offenses can’t solely focus on neutralizing him. Also, though he did a good job of generating a push in this game, I think he could improve his bull rush in the NFL. He is a bit lanky as a player and gets too upright at times. I understand he’s only about 19-20 here and will continue to grow. How much bulk can he add in the NFL without losing his quicks? Also, his broken fibula should raise a flag and teams will want to see how he responds to the injury moving forward. Finally, I think the biggest question for us of all is, what position does he play in a 3-4 front? The examination of that segues me into my next section,
What does he entail for the Redskins?
Aldon Smith reminds me an awful lot of Justin Tuck as a player, and he’s used in a very similar role in Missouri’s defense as Tuck is with the New York Giants. To that end, it’s easy to project Smith as an elite prospect and natural fit at 4-3 defensive end. However, there are legitimate questions about where he fits in an odd front. It certainly isn’t as an every-down five technique. He owns the length, but lacks the bulk to play in that kind of role in the NFL. He could certainly add quite a bit of weight, but I think doing so would waste some of his natural brilliance as a speedy edge rusher. Does he fit at outside linebacker? Possibly. But it’s difficult to tell from what he does in this game since he never stands up. Who knows what he’ll look like in coverage? Missouri never asks him to drop back in zone. However, there are clues to his performance to suggest he could hold his own at linebacker on first and second down, before shifting back to a three point stance on third down. I think he absolutely has the fluidity, balance, and range to play linebacker from an athletic standpoint. I also like the way he’s able to stack and shed blockers and set the edge against the run. Finally, I love his instincts and the level of overall awareness he plays with which would certainly suit him if he switched to OLB in our front.
Smith is only a sophomore in eligibility and he missed three games this season due to his injury. But if he comes back and continues to produce at his career rate (0.9 sacks per game), with his athletic skill set, that’ll be enough to make him a very high pick in this year’s draft. I would think he’d be a lock for the first round and have a strong chance of being taken in the top ten picks. That would place him firmly in the same elite tier as Robert Quinn and Da’Quan Bowers. In fact, if I were drafting for a 4-3 defense, I would actually target Smith ahead of both Quinn and Bowers. I believe he plays with better instincts, is a more polished pass rusher with a better repertoire of moves, and has the type of frame that will allow him to add bulk in the NFL and play on both the strong and weak side of your defense. I don’t think Quinn offers the same kind of versatility in an even front since his frame is a little more maxed out. He might not be able to effectively add the bulk to play left end. Plus, neither Quinn or Bowers are the consistent playmaker (against the pass and run) that Smith is. However, were I drafting for a 3-4 defense, I would probably rank Quinn and Bowers first and second with Smith ranking third. I just haven’t seen enough of Smith standing up and playing in space to feel comfortable projecting him at LB over the other two players. Quinn fits the profile of the elite 3-4 OLB and we’ve already seen Bowers play quite a bit in a two point stance, so we know he’s capable of it. That’s not to say we can’t find out before draft day what he looks like standing up at LB, and I think Smith could potentially end up being the superior playmaker at the position even though he’s probably a riskier bet. Either way, if Smith decides to come out early, he’s a prospect deserving of our attention.