From now until the 2022 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to scout and create profiles for as many prospects as possible, examining their strengths, weaknesses, and what they can bring to an NFL franchise. These players could be potential top 10 picks, all the way down to Day 3 selections and priority undrafted free agents. Today, I’m profiling one of the more athletic linebackers in the 2022 NFL Draft class, whose athleticism offers a glimpse at starting upside at the next level.
#12 Brandon Smith, LB, Penn State (Jr.) — 6035, 244 lbs.
NFL Combine, Pro Day
|Player||Ht/Wt||Hand Size||Arm Length||Wingspan|
|Brandon Smith||6035/244||10 1/4″||34 5/8″||81 4/8″|
|40-Yard Dash||10-Yard Dash||Short Shuttle||3-Cone|
|Broad Jump||Vertical||Bench Press|
— Very fast player at linebacker, really utilizes his plus burst and acceleration in whatever he does.
— Highly physical tackler, likes to deliver heavy shots to the upper body and really plant guys into the turf.
— Fills and sits at the top of gaps to meet backs, and reacts quickly to snaps to clog gaps quickly.
— Tenacious worker inside, keeps applying pressure to the backfield. When he makes contact, can hang on to runners until help arrives to finish off.
— Has the strength to power through some blocks to contact a runner, and can brace for contact in the open field and stay in position to make a hit.
— Can generate quick pressure when sent off the edge, and can penetrate the line or accelerate into gaps when sent on a blitz from the box.
— Has the straight-line speed to stick in man coverage against receivers with slow or average speed, running backs, and tight ends.
— Reads when screens are forming and when backs or tight ends are leaking out on delayed routes.
— Will miss some tackles, can be caught lunging at players or making weak contact trying to dive low.
— Doesn’t react or close on defenders quick enough in zone coverage to break up passes.
— Tends to lock focus in coverage, either on the quarterback or on his assignment, will cause him to lose track of his man or not be aware of when ball is arriving.
— Has to learn to survey field in coverage, improve his awareness to monitor assignment (man), nearby targets (zone), while also checking on QB and where he is throwing.
— When he does track the ball in man coverage, is slow to react to make a play on it.
— Plays stiff in coverage, is very slow to change directions.
— Played 34 games across three seasons at Penn State, starting all 21 games his final two seasons after appearing in 13 as a reserve his true freshman season (2019). Only missed game was 2022 Outback Bowl (opted out).
— 2021 All-Big Ten third team, 2020 honorable mention.
— 2021 Butkus Award semifinalist (Best Linebacker)
— Career stats: 132 tackles (68 solo), 14 tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception, seven passes defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery.
— 2021 stats (12 games): 81 tackles (45 solo), four tackles for loss, five passes defensed, one forced fumble.
— 5-star recruit, rated the top inside linebacker prospect in his class and top player from Virginia. Was a top-20 prospect nationally.
— Chose Penn State over 28 other offers, also made visit to Texas A&M and had offers from collegiate playoff blue bloods.
— High school All-American, Under Armour All-American participant.
A touted five-star prospect when he arrived at State College as a freshman, Brandon Smith had to wait his turn to break into Penn State’s starting lineup as a linebacker. Once he got there, Smith stayed a fixture for the Nittany Lion defense, and ended up playing two seasons in the lineup before choosing to declare for the draft a year early. The tape offers plenty of potential for the young linebacker (he turns 21 this month), but there also some things he will have to work on as an NFL rookie, that could have been improved with another season in Happy Valley.
Where Smith is ready to play in the NFL is in a run support role, where his game stood out in college. Playing in the box a lot, Smith was someone who, while he didn’t rack up insane amounts of tackles behind the line, did limit opposing gains with his work attacking the ball carrier and either filling or clogging the designed gaps off the line. He frequently showed an ability to read where the play was designed, and get to the gap in time to take away a big gain from the offense.
Watch two very similar plays from his Big Ten schedule this season, against rivals Ohio State and Michigan.
His work against Michigan is nothing flashy, just the exact type of play you expect your middle linebackers to make time in, time out, without incident. Smith, lined up on the defense’s left side of the box, keeps himself centered on the run, and sits at the top of where he recognizes the lane is coming. He waits until Michigan tight end Erick All (#83) charges in and throws a block elsewhere, then attacks the gap and meets Hassan Haskins to stop the play cold just beyond the line. Not a highlight reel play, but the type of play every linebacker needs to make to play in college or the NFL.
His work against Ohio State is similar. Smith starts in the same spot, and is quick to follow the running back across the right side of the line, toward the gap forming between the center and left guard. As soon as that lane forms, Smith hits his burst and accelerates down to meet Treveyon Henderson, again making the stop just beyond the line. Nothing spectacular, but a fundamental play that prevents Ohio State from getting a larger gain.
Smith’s clip against the Buckeyes gives him a chance to show his athleticism, which stands out compared to other linebackers in the class. He is a great athlete, with plenty of burst and straight-line speed to use in tracking down runners. For another example of his speed, look at him against the Buckeyes in this clip.
Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud connects with Jaxon Smith-Njigba and he gets free up the middle. Joey Porter Jr. eventually tracks Smith-Njigba down inside the red zone, but Smith is right there every step of the way, showing his straight-line speed to keep up with faster players like receivers. Similar to that play, Smith uses his speed and burst to accelerate down into gaps and get to the edge to meet runners, or to stick with his assignments in man coverage along straight-line routes.
Smith has a lot of play strength in his work as a run defender, which gives him a high ceiling in that regard when paired with his athleticism. When he gets into a gap and makes contact with a runner, he can hang on until help can arrive, and he is also able to work through blocks to get a hand on a back and similarly slow him down for teammates to finish the play off.
Here is an example of that against Auburn. Smith (on the right of the box) is met by left tackle Austin Troxell as he tries to clear a lane up the middle. Smith reads where running back Jarquez Hunter is heading, and keeps Troxell from sealing him off while leaning left in the direction Hunter is going. That allows him to wrap around Hunter’s waist as Hunter tries to cut to Troxell’s other side away from Smith, and Smith hangs on (and actually looks like he is making the tackle himself) while his teammates arrive to finish driving Hunter to the ground. That slight burst Smith uses right before he is contacted to get inside Troxell and have a hand free to grab the runner is something he does routinely to beat blockers and slow down running plays.
While he had help driving Hunter to the ground in that rep, Smith is a big hitter who doesn’t deliver a ton of highlight-reel knockdowns, but who really likes to deliver heavy shots to the upper body and try to drive guys five feet into the turf. He can be a tone-setter with how he tackles, and when he gets a guy up high, the chances of that man slipping a tackle are very slim. He can out-muscle players when he hits them high, like he does in tandem with Porter Jr. against Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson, dropping him hard to the ground without allowing any extra yards after he makes contact.
One underrated area where Smith showed he contribute (in limited reps) was as a pass rusher. He’s more of a box player and not someone who should be getting sent off the edge every other snap, but when Penn State sent him on a blitz up the middle or to the outside, he showed he can combo his athleticism with some strength and a sneaky toolbox of moves to stress the pocket.
Here is a play against Auburn where he is responsible for a throw that winds up incomplete. Lined up off the right guard, Smith ends up as a looper after working in tandem with teammate Jesse Luketa. As soon as he cuts to open space, he turns on his burst to run the arc before Auburn’s Brodarious Hamm can catch up, and his pressure forces Bo Nix to attempt a throw deep into double coverage, which ended up being an overthrow.
While Smith could make an occasional impact in the pass rush, his work as a coverage linebacker is where his biggest weaknesses are on tape, and why my projection below will not list him as someone ready to be an all-around contributor as a rookie.
Despite having the speed, as shown above, to stay with most players along routes, Smith is very stiff in coverage. He doesn’t change directions quickly enough to follow along breaking routes in man, and he isn’t a fluid mover in zone, which limits the range in which he can get to throws in time to make a play on them. Overall, Smith has to become a better defender at staying in-phase with players, instead of conceding enough space for passes to be completed safely.
Here is an example, against Ohio State and Smith-Njigba, showing how Smith (left side of screen) just does not stay close enough to deny an easy throw when Smith-Njigba ends up turning back for the ball. When Stroud sets to throw, Smith is not close enough, and can’t change his direction and break quickly enough, to get into the lane to deny it. That is a persistent problem when he is defending routes beneath him, is giving up ample space to make an uncontested throw, and having to trust that he or someone will make a tackle to limit additional yardage. On this play below against Auburn, he gets that tackle from Porter Jr., but Smith (now on the right side of the screen) never contests or makes a push toward tight end John Samuel Shenker (#47), and gives up the easy out route completion.
To add some context to the above rep, Smith did read an out route on the next play and nearly intercepted the pass, showing that he can pick up in-game on what an offense is trying to do. He showed that on the fly learning at other points in his 2021 season, but he has to become a better mover and more aggressive defender against the pass, and really take advantage of being a linebacker who can cover a lot of ground and stick to faster targets.
One other area for Smith to work on in coverage is his awareness. Too often, he will lock his gaze on the quarterback in zone and be unaware of targets crossing his area, or lock focus on his assignment in man and fail to sense when a throw has been made and is arriving.
An example of that comes again against Shenker and Auburn. Smith (lined up visually just below the “1” in 10) is more than able to stick to Shenker on a straight fly to the 30 yard line. However as soon as they start down the field, he never turns back to see if a throw is coming, and doesn’t read Shenker to recognize he is adjusting for a pass. So when the throw arrives, it’s an easy duck-back and catch for Auburn.
Away from coverage, if there’s something I’d like to see Smith improve on, it is his tackling. When he hits and wraps up high, he can make some big sticks and stop men cold. But he did miss tackles in college, typically when getting away from the line or trying to hit a runner in open space on an angle.
This is a tackle that Smith has to make against Michigan. As Smith navigates the early portions of the play, he does everything well. He begins working downhill when he sees Haskins float out for the screen, and easily drops Mike Sainristil when he tries to throw a block. Even as Haskins moves away from Smith and forces him to come in at an angle to make a tackle, Smith needs to make better contact there, and either stop him or at least slow him down enough for one of the nearby defensive backs to provide help. Instead, Haskins gets almost another 10 yards, and picks up the first on a third and long play.
Smith’s tackling issues are, in fairness, not as bad as a lot of others in the class, but he does have room to improve. Many of his other misses are in similar situations, but come closer to the line and when he lunges or dives and tries to make more of an arm tackle against a player trying to get upfield after a shallow route or a screen.
Watching Smith’s film, you see the athletic tools that make people envision his being an impact player at the NFL level. When he is working in area of strength, such as defending the run or even stressing the pocket, he really knows how to pair his plus speed and burst with his considerable strength, and offers a view at what looks like a higher ceiling that he can reach with some coaching at the NFL level. Even if he doesn’t reach another level in the NFL (which I believe he can), his skill playing in the box in a run support role can help him get on the field on early downs and obvious running situations as a rookie.
Smith can’t be an every-down linebacker or a team’s No. 1 at the position yet, until he learns how to better use his athleticism in coverage, and how to better deny passes and stay aware when he is sent out to play in coverage. As a rookie, that should be where coaches work with him most, and if he can improve it, there is a ceiling for him to be an NFL starter. Even if he doesn’t, he has an NFL home as someone who can work in the box and improve to be used frequently as a blitzer. With his athleticism and the skills he brings from college to the NFL, it’s possible a team could gamble on him with a late Day 2 pick, but if he doesn’t go on Friday, he should not last long on the start of Day 3 as teams try to find upside.
Projection: Late Day 2/Early Day 3 (Rounds 3-4)
Depot Draft Grade: 7.8 (Potential Starter/Good Backup)
Games Watched: 2021: at Wisconsin, vs. Auburn, at Ohio State, vs. Michigan