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Raiders draft: Chris Smith II may be hard to keep off the field

2023 fifth-round pick is the type of disruptive safety Las Vegas is missing

NCAA Football: Oregon at Georgia
Chris Smith II was a playmaker and game changer for the Georgia defense. The Las Vegas Raiders hope the safety can bring that to the Silver & Black.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Smith II is a textbook example of the reconciliation process NFL personnel people and scouts often do when it comes to collegiate prospects.

On game tape alone, the safety showcased his playmaking and game-changing ability on the Georgia Bulldogs defense the past two season. But on testing numbers alone, Smith put forth a questionable athletic profile with a 4.62 40-yard dash, 33-inch vertical, 4.41 short shuttle and 7.45 three-cone drill that usually leads to undrafted status.

The talented safety was available late into the 2023 NFL Draft and end up a fifth-round selection by Las Vegas — 170th overall.

But how did a productive defender on Georgia’s championship defense last so long? There are concerns — but none that his game tape couldn’t answer. Let’s dive in and explore Smith’s production and how it may be difficult for the Raiders to keep him off the field this coming season.

The Bulldog

As an 11-game and 15-game starter in 2021 and 2022, respectively, — primarily at free safety — Smith was a steady presence on the back end of Georgia’s defense. He totaled 96 total tackles (six for loss), one sack, six interceptions and 16 pass breakups in those two years.

Instinctive, smart and tactful, Smith’s football intelligence shows up on film constantly. He’s a read-react safety that uses anticipation and timing to jump routes and either break up the pass or take it away with an interception.

Smith is also a very willing tackler who throws his body around as a physical downhill defender.

Smith is also a seasoned special teamer (playing 303 snaps at Georgia) including a heads-up 96-yadr touchdown return of a blocked field goal in the 2022 SEC championship game.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Ohio State at Georgia
Chris Smith (29) gets downhill in a hurry as evidenced by his hit on Ohio State wide receiver Xavier Johnson that knocked his helmet clean off during the 2022 Peach Bowl.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The Raider

Las Vegas is missing the read-react type safety on the back end of its defense. The Raiders did add Marcus Epps in free agency to bring wallop and attitude to the secondary and the team is trying to get Tre’Von Moehrig to translate the takeaway artist he become at TCU into the pros.

The interesting part about Epps, Moehrig and Smith is this: All three primarily manned the free safety spot. There will likely be spirited competition in OTAs and training camp for the starting safety spots, but Epps and Moehrig are early favorites to snare first-team snaps. Epps’ physicality, prowess in run support, and hitting ability likely make him a fit for the strong safety spot.

But don’t discount Smith getting into the rotation or snaps — especially if defensive coordinator Patrick Graham rolls out the big nickel formation often. That sub package can see three safeties on the field at the same time, and Smith did shine in Georgia’s nickel “star” position covering the slot.

Las Vegas is in dire need of a defender like Smith who is adept at beating receivers to the catch, quick to diagnose and decide on an action, and has the burst and quickness to blow plays up.

Smith also adds special teams value for the Raiders. Tom McMahon’s unit needs more talent and the Georgia product can mix it up on special teams from the get-go.

The Drawback

This is the biggest kicker when it comes to Smith: Size. At 5-foot-11 and 192 pounds, Smith resembles a cornerback more than he does a safety. No doubt he has a smaller body type and that — along with the athletic testing numbers — contributed to him being available with pick No. 170.

With his smallish stature comes the concerns about play strength — which did show up on film as Smith got bullied by bigger tight ends — and durability come to the forefront of talent evaluators. While Smith does arrive with quickness and looking to assert himself, his relative lack of size results in thump or wallop that’s associated with bigger more physical defenders.

Yet, he’s still a disruptive defender with the frame he’s got to work with. Despite the lack of bulk and timed speed, Smith plays much faster than a stopwatch or official combine timer dictates.

“He is a little undersized there,” said NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “You want your safeties to be a little bigger than that. He is a playmaker. He plays fast. He has range from the middle of the field. He has no wasted movement, plays with confidence. Quick to read and drive. He sits there flat-footed and then drives on the ball.”