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Film review: Rookie Elerson Smith yet to make an impact

If we look beyond the stats, though, is he showing any reason to be hopeful?

NFL: New York Giants at Miami Dolphins Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Elerson Smith had a slow start to his NFL career. The New York Giants fourth-round pick out of Northern Iowa missed most of training camp before an extended stay on Injured Reserve. The quick pass-rushing specialist did not see action until Week 11 at Tampa Bay.

Smith’s role is limited. He’s only played in 55 snaps through three games, and he’s yet to record a single tackle. The Pro Football Focus statistics seem bleak, but I don’t believe he’s necessarily struggled.

The Giants fell in love with Smith at the Reese’s Senior Bowl. The small school product displayed unique athletic ability, burst, and overall movement skills along with his impressive frame.

Smith’s size/athletic profile is one of the more unique combinations in NFL history for the defensive end position. Smith fell to day three because of his collegiate competition and a 2020 opt-out of his college program. Small school players like Smith, Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz, and North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz had to make the most of the all-star event.

The selection of Smith, along with the second-round addition of Azeez Ojulari, augmented an EDGE position absent of consistent talent. Although early, Ojulari appears to be a steal. The jury is still out on Smith. Here are some plays of note from the last two games.

(Elerson Smith is No. 94)

Run defense

After looking at the Pro Football Focus statistics, one might surmise that Smith is a terrible tackler. I value PFF, but their grades are far from gospel. Smith’s tackling grade is among the worst for defensive ends, with a grade of 26.0. As previously mentioned, Smith has failed to record a tackle, and he has one missed tackle which gives the illusion of a mistake. I question that after perusing the film.

I believe this is the “missed tackle” by Smith. The Chargers align with three tight ends towards Smith, creating a D, E, and F (outside) gap. An overloaded offensive front creates a huge strength to the field side with Smith directly over the second tight end. The Giants account for these gaps by sliding Aaron Robinson (33) and Xavier McKinney (29) in that direction.

At the snap, Smith fits his hands inside of the tight end and then sets to the outside, creating a desired defensive edge; he sheds the tight end with ease and gets a clean look at running back Josh Kelly (27). He forces the running back horizontal and completely disrupts the rushing attempt, allowing Robinson and Tae Crowder (48) to tackle Kelly for no gain.

This is an excellent play by Smith, and yet it negatively impacts his PFF grade. I’m not chastising the organization - I have a ton of respect for their process; I’m just highlighting how it’s not always perfect (nothing is) and that context matters.

I enjoyed seeing him succeed on this play against Miami because it’s a different assignment in the run game. The Dolphins run an RPO inside zone with the sniffer using split action to come across the formation and kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOLOS). With the running back off-set to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s right side, the preferred destination of the run would be to the left side of the offense, off the double team on Danny Shelton (75) and the kick out of Smith.

Smith does a good job reading his run keys - the tackle blocks down, so Smith steps down and replaces. By doing this, Smith keeps the C-Gap rushing lane narrow and makes the kick-out block difficult. The ball was snapped on the hash, and Smith makes contact with his blocker on that same hash - there’s no running room for Salvon Ahmed (26) to that side. Ahmed was forced to run towards the 3-Technique (Dexter Lawrence), who easily collapsed the B-gap with Quincy Roche (95). It won’t show up on the stat sheet, but this is another good play from Smith.

These were his two best run defending snaps. Out of Smith’s 55 snaps, only 19 of them were as a run defender. That is by design. These two plays are signs of encouragement, but I wouldn’t trust Smith to be a full-time player just yet. He still needs to add more pop and power to his game to set the edge in Patrick Graham’s system consistently. It’s a slower process to ingratiate a small-school player like Smith into a system that relies heavily on their EDGE rushers to be quality run defenders.

Pass rushing

Smith does a good job on this play containing Tagovailoa and forcing him back inside off a double-team attempt from the H-Back and running back. Smith is initially engaged by Liam Eichenberg (74). Smith steps down to see what transpires at the mesh point. Once he sees pass, Smith expands his rush outward, effectively containing Tagovalioa and forcing him to step up towards other Giant defenders. A solid overall play from the rookie.

Smith does a poor overall job containing Justin Herbert (10) on this eventual 10-yard rush. Rashawn Slater (70) handles the outside pass-rushing move easily from Smith, who attempts to get hip to hip and stress Slater. The rookie tackle stonewalls Smith, who then attempts to move inside. This is a big problem, especially for the defensive play design. Smith must keep contain outside. New York is in man coverage on the back-end with a five-man pressure package.

Dexter Lawrence (97) and Raymond Johnson III (91) stunt with Crowder stacked behind Lawrence pre-snap. At the snap, Crowder allows for the defensive line movement to develop while the blocking situates before exploding through an open A-gap. By directing his path inside, Smith loses the edge with no one else around, allowing Herbert to evade the blitz and easily pick up the first down. A rookie mistake from Smith and a good play design from Graham.

Inside pass rush

Graham uses Smith inside at 3-Technique to take advantage of his upfield burst and disruption ability in obvious passing situations. Smith initially wins off the line of scrimmage but doesn’t have the strength to bend through the guard’s contact. His club misses the outside arm, but he’s still able to employ the rip move with good leverage underneath the pads of the guard. Smith catches the offensive lineman leaning but just couldn’t bend around the outside shoulder. It also appears like Smith’s inside foot was altered by the tackle’s back-step, which may have resulted in the collapse as well. There’s also an argument for holding on this play against the guard. Either way, the quickness is evident.

Ojulari (51) and Smith combine on a speedy T/E stunt where Smith penetrates to the outside with Ojulari looping underneath his pressure. Smith is tasked to occupy the tackle and guard by aggressively penetrating the B-gap, which, theoretically, would open the stunt side A-gap for Ojulari. The Giants recorded a sack in this manner in the previous week; however, the Chargers didn’t slide their protection to Julian Love (20), who didn’t blitz, so the center was in position to pick up the stunt. With a rush like this, Smith may want to engage the guard a bit more to occupy his attention.

Smith uses really good leverage, and a solid long arm move to engage the guard on this touchdown pass to Josh Palmer (5). It’s not always easy for a 6-foot-6 EDGE rusher to maintain a low profile off the snap, as Smith showed here against Michael Schofield III (72). Smith can’t generate enough lower body pressure to win with power, but I like how he realized that and studied Herbert’s eyes before getting his hand into the throwing area. He nearly knocks the pass out of the air.

Smith isn’t tasked to do much on this play, but it’s a well-designed blitz from Patrick Graham. Smith aligns as the 4i-Technique, and he’s asked to engage the guard before attacking his inside shoulder; along with this distraction, Azeez Ojulari aggressively attacks the outside shoulder of Slater. The combination of these two rushes allows for a wide-open B-gap for a blitzing Aaron Robinson to exploit. The pressure, along with creeper Lorenzo Carter simulating pressure and dropping to middle hook zone, forces an incompletion.

Final thoughts

Smith is still a developmental pass rusher who can improve as an overall defender. He possesses a unique combination of overall athletic ability and length, along with some pass-rushing moves that still need refinement. This seems like a lost season, so allowing players like Smith to develop with a larger snap share may be wise to allow from the Giants coaching staff. His career is still very young, and he’s still raw, but there are signs of potential.