Preston Smith is the latest Mississippi State prospect that leaves the program with a ton of playing experience. Like former teammates including Johnthan Banks and Gabe Jackson before him, Smith played all four seasons of his career in Starkville, totaling 47 games in his collegiate career. Meanwhile, he has gotten great experience moving around the Bulldogs hybrid scheme which helped Pernell McPhee when he entered the NFL. Smith’s production spiked his senior year, a year when he was able to have to have as much production in his final season as he did in his first three combined.
The Bulldogs have Smith typically line up as a 5-technique defensive end in their base sets, head-up, or just outside the tight end, whether in an even or odd front. In obvious passing situations, Smith was moved inside to rush the passer, ranging from the 3-technique but often over-the-ball at nose. On running downs, he was usually asked to seal the edge or stack and shed (depending on what the play-call was). For passing downs, Smith seems to largely be set loose and allowed to attack the opponent how he deems fit in a given situation.
Vitals & Build
- Born November 17, 1992 (22 years old)
- 6’4 3/4″ 273lbs (Pro Day)
- Arm Length: 34″
- Hand Size: 10 5/8″
Smith is the prototype defensive end from an athletic standpoint. He has every bit of length and reach a team could want as well as a solid amount of weight for the position. Smith also has terrific speed and explosion in addition to body control and flexibility. He has displayed a good, but not great, motor. Some of this might be deceptive though as he is a smooth player and can look like he is tired and is moving fast, but certainly, there is times when he will show some fatigue.
Finishing among the best in a number of important categories, Smith was outstanding in his athletic testing, His 7.07 3 cone drill, 4.74 40 time and 121 inch broad jump were all among the best in his position group, which is more impressive when factoring in his weight. Combine these factors with his overall length and the power he has showcased on the field and there is reason to believe that Smith might a ‘sleeping giant’ as he makes his move to the NFL with his best still ahead of him.
Smith has shown some of these abilities on the field, but he needs to improve his technique, judgment and some habits so that he can put it all together on the field. There is nothing to suggest Smith cannot continue to improve physically, but if he never improves or gets any better physically, he is already an NFL ready body. The extra potential could allow him to be extraordinary at the next level, but so much of this comes down to Smith and the team that drafts him being able to get it out of him on a week-to-week basis as opposed to being a workout warrior.
Snap Anticipation & First Step
Smith’s snap anticipation is hit or miss. When he wants to really get a good jump on the ball, he can certainly do it and be the first man off of the ball. There are definitely times when he is late. It is important to note that some of this is deliberate and he is a half beat late because he is reading what is happening in front of him to know where to go, but there are enough situations where he is just late because he misjudged the snap or is showing fatigue.
His actual first step is one of the areas where Smith could improve the most from a technical standpoint and really make a big jump as he goes to the next level. Smith has the explosion and power to have a great get off with his first step, but far too often, a substantial portion of his power ends up going vertically as opposed to going forward, causing Smith to stand up too much. The result is he ends up losing pad level and giving up his chest too early, making him have to work harder through blocks to make plays.
- Smith fires off of the ball and stands up immediately. He is still fast, but he makes it easier on the opposing tackle to neutralize his strength because he has exposed his chest.
When he is really playing run and expecting it, he tends to back off of attacking as hard with his first step, does a much better job with his leverage and is a far more powerful player, not just able to hold up but at times collapsing opponents into the backfield.
If Smith can get better at firing out lower, having more of that power attack forward, he will be faster out of his stance and make it more difficult for opponents to block him, especially on the outside. This is a correctable issue that can really take his game to another level, especially when it comes to rushing the passer.
Smith has the ability to shed blocks but much of his success depends on the situation presented to him. As a run defender, he is far more focused on the blocker, more effectively using his arm length to keep the opponent out of his body, taking control of them and being able to shed them and make the play. This is an area he can continue to improve upon, but he shows some tools and building blocks that have him headed in the right direction.
As a pass rusher, when Smith has his eyes on the quarterback, he often either wins on his initial move or he gets neutralized. Whether he wants to employ a bull rush, swim move or just trying to run the arc on the outside, he has a difficult time recovering when the opponent gets control. To this point, he has not really showcased a counter move and that is something that needs to happen so he can have an effective second life as a pass rusher on a given play. This is something that needs to be a big focus for Smith as he goes into the NFL and early in his career to increase his viability as a pass rusher.
Smith is an excellent run defender and this should be an area where he finds early success in the NFL. Both his physical ability and the technique he has developed has enable him to dominate opponents’ ground games at times. He has demonstrated the ability to hold up at the point of attack, maintain outside leverage, help create plays for teammates as well as make impact plays himself.
This is where his pad level is at his best. Much of this seems to be because he is a little more patient with how he wants to attack the opponent and reacting off of their first move. With a less ambitious first step and lower pad level, he can show off some impressive power to not only hold up at the point of attack but will flash the ability to collapse the line and create opportunities for tackles for loss.
- Smith fires out low, controls the outside shoulder of the tight end, collapses him inside, reestablish the line of scrimmage and lead the Bulldog defenders to the tackle on 3rd and goal.
Smith has a good knowledge of what his role is in the Bulldogs’ defense. Most of the time, he is responsible for taking away outside running lanes and bottling up opponents so his teammates can make plays. His length and his reach make it so he can get control of the blocker with power and the ability to get his outside arm free. For the ball carriers that still want to go out wide, he has the length and range to get out there and make a play.
- Smith gets his head across to leverage outside contain on the left tackle, forcing the runner back inside to his teammates inside for virtually no gain.
On plays run away from him, Smith does a nice job of sliding inside to take away cutback runs. He is able to work down the line of scrimmage and has the range to help chase plays down from behind in pursuit. Smith has excellent awareness and stays focused, partly because so many teams were trying to run away from him, so he has gotten a ton of practice in this area.
- Smith steps down, does a great job of slipping the pulling guard and stuffs the ball carrier.
As a run defender, Smith should be ready to contribute right out of the box. He still has the capacity to get bigger and stronger but he does a good job with his technique and made himself into an impact player. Once he adjusts to the speed of the game, it should not be long before he is making a big impact as a run defender and may be a far better asset to the team that drafts him than perhaps his stat sheet would indicate.
Smith offers some promising signs as a pass rusher, but has not yet fully realized just how good he can be. He has the athleticism to test opponents around the edge, the quickness and burst to shoot gaps and the power to collapse the pocket. All of this comes with inconsistency but he has shown the ability to do all of it and it should be able to translate at the next level.
Smith has shown he can drive an opponent into the backfield when he gets behind his pads and maximizes his leverage. He has shown the ability to do it both on the interior as well as on the outside, able to convert speed to power.
- Smith bull rushes with excellent pad level, knocks the center off balance, then simply toss him aside forcing the back to fill and make the block.
- Smith sells the up field rush, converts to power as he sticks his foot in the ground and pushes the tackle right into the quarterback’s lap.
- Smith is lined up in the 1 gap on the center’s left shoulder. The center appears to over set, expecting to get power from Smith, who rips through his right shoulder on his way to the sack.
Pad level is the biggest problem Smith can run into as a pass rusher. Especially when he falls in love with the swim move (which has been very good for him), he gives up his chest and when the swim fails, he is neutralized and struggles to recover. Obviously, with the amount of success he has had with his swim move and his quickness off of the snap, he has been able to beat opponents to their drop and be on top of the quarterback but with a higher level of talent at the next level, that type of success is going to be rarer.
In general, Smith too often has to readjust during his rush to get lower to be effective with his bull rush or trying to bend around the edge. Smith is both an athletic and powerful player and his pad level can work to mute some of it, so if he can play lower in general, he can be a far more effective and dynamic pass rushing threat, both outside on the edge or if he trying to shoot gaps in the middle.
As mentioned earlier, he needs to develop an effective counter move and find a way to stay alive when he is blocked. He does an excellent job of trying to get his hands up and deflect passes when he is not going to get to the passer and has had success in that area. The other attribute that Smith shows is tremendous closing speed and can be a big threat to chase down quarterbacks rolling away from him. His size can be deceptive but when he gets going, he is flying and catches some opponents by surprise.
There is a lot to like with Smith in terms of a pass rusher. His production this past season was a little misleading in terms of where he is in terms of being ready for the NFL in that area. Smith has the speed, explosion, power and flexibility do a great job in this area and he just needs to continue refining this area of his game. If he can do it, Smith can become a complete player and a star in the NFL.
Based on what he has shown on the field, Smith’s best fit is as a 5 technique defensive end. Some NFL teams would be perfectly happy to take him at the size he is but he has room to add weight if needed. This is predominately the role he played at Mississippi State and he should be able to step in and play immediately at least as a run defender.
The other obvious fit would be a strong side defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. He has the length and ability to play the run that would make him attractive in that role, but his tape leaves a little be desired as a pass rusher. However, for teams that really factor in his workouts and measurables and believe they can get it out of them, he has the potential to be a star in that scheme.
It would seem that Smith will have higher value to teams that want him to play as a 5 technique because they should be able to get more out of him early. For teams that are hoping to get more of a pass rush, they may hold off unless they have a plan built in for obvious passing downs and are willing to wait for Smith to develop more in that area.
Additionally, Smith should be able to find some reps on special teams as his body type and athleticism makes him well equipped to block kicks, which has done a few times in his career.
Preston Smith is more along the lines of a Top 50 pick when considering where he is as a player. But between the lack of depth in this class and the outstanding physical potential Smith has, it is far more likely that a team takes him in the first round as they hope they are getting a really good run defender right on the cusp of breaking out as a pass rusher that can impact every down at a hugely important position.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com