The search for a diamond in the rough happens every year during the NFL Draft. Team
s spend hundreds of hours searching for that player who will be a Day 3 pick but can outperform his draft status and blossom into a quality contributor for years to come. In the 2023 draft, the Las Vegas Raiders might have done that with their fifth-round selection, Georgia safety Christopher Smith II.
Smith II was a consistent presence for the Bulldogs' defense over the last three years, earning defensive grades from Pro Football Focus that ranged from 74.7 to 77.1. He showed excellent instincts and some tenacity against the run, leading to him getting ranked as the 35th-best player on Bleacher Report’s big board, 57th on The Draft Network’s and 108th on NFL Mock Draft Database’s consensus big board.
However, a poor performance at the NFL Combine that resulted in a 2.93 out of 10 RAS caused the Georgia product to slide to the 170th pick overall during the draft. Now, the biggest question surrounding him pivots to are his instincts good enough to overcome his poor testing numbers?
Let’s flip on the tape!
We’ll start with a few clips in coverage and here, Georiga is playing Cover 4 against a 4x1 formation from Oregon.
Smith II is on the wide side of the field and responsible for a deep quarter of the field which, in this instance, is essentially any route that is 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage and between the left hash (from the defense’s perspective) and a little past the middle of the field.
Post-snap, he reads the release of the No. 3 receiver (counting from the outside in) and recognizes the receiver is turning his head to look for the ball almost immediately. That means he’s running a seam route and trying to attack the area between the second and third levels of the defense.
Smith II sees that, trusts his instincts and starts to trigger downhill. Also, notice how he gets his eyes back to the quarterback after breaking on the route which allows him to read the quarterback’s eyes and make the interception. The Bulldog also times it perfectly so that the QB thinks the route is open and still makes the throw.
What makes this rep even more impressive is this came during Week 1 of the season and Oregon brought in a new coaching staff in the offseason, so it’s not like he had a ton of film to watch to anticipate what was coming. That’s where having great instincts comes into play.
Christopher Smith II with a beautiful tackle in coverage to force a 3rd down pic.twitter.com/YiBLRg2AtV— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) May 8, 2023
I think this next play would technically fall under the Cover 3 family as Kirby Smart, Georiga’s head coach, likes to pattern match while playing Cover 3, so the coverage functions—and looks—similar to Cover 1 or man coverage. So in this instance, Smith II is essentially playing as a hole defender.
That means his primary responsibility is to help his teammates against any in-breaking routes. With the Ducks in a bunch formation at the bottom of the screen, it’s going to be difficult for Keele Ringo (No. 5, the wide corner) to cover this short drag route because he has to avoid a pick from the linebacker against this mesh concept.
As expected, Ringo gets beat to the inside but Smith has great eye discipline and recognizes the passing concept, so he starts to cheat downhill before the quarterback starts his throwing motion and drives on the drag route when the ball comes out.
On top of that, he delivers a nice hit, especially for someone who is 5’10 5/8” and 192 pounds and forces Oregon into a third-down situation. Again, we see an example of Smith II’s high football IQ and, in this instance, how that can help his teammates.
Here is another situation where Smith II’s instincts trump his lack of speed.
He’s lined up as the deep safety in the middle of the field and does a good job of staying in the middle against this half-roll bootleg from the quarterback.
That’s important because what Oregon is trying to do by putting the quarterback on the move is get the safety to cheat toward the hash marks to the wide side of the field and then throw to the boundary receiver. Had Smith II worked too wide, he wouldn’t be in a position to help his teammate.
Instead, the Bulldog stays disciplined and reads the quarterback’s eyes. As soon as the QB plants, Smith II flips his hips and starts to break on the boundary receiver who is wide open on the go route. He takes a good angle and times his hit up perfectly so that he makes contact right as the ball gets there and forces an incompletion.
That’s a lot of ground to cover for someone who is considered “slow”, and what could have easily been a 30-plus-yard gain turns into an incompletion.
We’re moving on to a couple of clips of Smith II playing against the run.
Oregon is running an inverted read option which is a good call seeing as Georgia is playing with two-high safeties and only has five guys in the box. The quarterback gives the ball up on the option which should be a big play, however, what the Ducks didn’t account for is a great read and open-field tackle by the safety.
Once Smith II reads run, he instantly starts triggering downhill and shows more speed than his 40-time would suggest to close and make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage from about 11 to 12 yards out. Also, watch how he widens his base when he gets about five yards away from the running back.
That allows him to avoid getting juked out right before contact without having to slow down too much so he can still deliver a big hit to knock the ball carrier backward. The Bulldog certainly has some pop behind his pads for someone of his size.
This next clip is similar to the last one only Ohio State is going to run a fly sweep instead of an inverted read option. Still, the offense is trying to catch the defense sleeping by faking the run action to the short side of the field with the running back. However, Smith II sniffs it out and isn’t fooled for a second.
Post-snap, he reads the mesh point and immediately starts working downhill when he sees the receiver has the ball. The play design is predicated on him hesitating as the Buckeyes don’t have someone to block him, meaning the offense was hoping they’d catch Smith II flat-footed where the receiver can put a move on him and make him miss in space.
However, the defensive back’s instincts and tackling form, as well as some help from a teammate, allow him to make a tackle for a short gain. Again, for someone with a bad 40-time, he sure can cover a lot of ground in a hurry.
While Smith II does have great instincts to help make up for his lack of long speed, there are instances where that weakness shows up when he’s playing as a deep safety. Against deep routes from elite speed receivers, he’ll run out of gas and simply lose the footrace. That could be a bigger issue against NFL wideouts who can fly.
His change of direction skills aren’t good either, which was also highlighted by his poor short shuttle (4.41 seconds) and three-cone (7.45 seconds) and the combine. When he has to speed turn in coverage, he often drifts too far away from his man and leaves his man open. Both of these limitations could make it difficult for him to play as a free safety at the next level.
However, if he can improve in those two areas, he can easily become a quality starter for several years and end up being a great steal in the 2023 NFL Draft class.