Being a linebacker from Penn State carries a certain cache. Penn State has a reputation of being “Linebacker U”, and some of the best linebackers in the NFL have been Nittany Lions.
Junior linebacker Brandon Smith is looking to be the next in that line of players to take the NFL by storm. Smith was considered one of the draft’s top prospects at the start of the 2021 season, but his draft stock has fallen off after a disappointing season for both himself and Penn State as a whole.
Smith is still one of the most athletic linebackers in the draft, and will be one of the most athletic linebackers in the whole NFL. The New York Giants could certainly use some speed at the second level of their defense. Could they be the team to unleash Smith’s potential?
Prospect: Brandon Smith (12)
Games Watched: vs. Wisconsin (2021), vs. Iowa (2021), vs. Ohio State (2021), vs. Michigan (2021)
Games Played: 27
Tackles For a loss: 19.0
Forced Fumbles: 1
Passes Defensed: 6
Games Played: 12
Tackles For a loss: 9.0
Forced Fumbles: 1
Passes Defensed: 5
Best: Athleticism, size, range, pass rush, man coverage
Worst: Technique, consistency, mental processing
Projection: A SAM linebacker with starting upside in a multiple defense
(Smith is Penn State LB number 12)
Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith has a fantastic blend of size and athleticism for the position at the NFL level.
Smith has a prototypical build for the position at 6-foot 3 ½ inches, 250 pounds, with 34 ⅝ inch arms and 10 ¼ inch hands. He combines that with elite athleticism, featuring great long speed, explosiveness, and short area quickness.
Smith’s athleticism flashes on the field. He quickly gets good depth in zone drops and easily runs with tight ends and running backs in man coverage. Smith is able to fire downhill in run defense, and his burst makes him a problem for offensive tackles when he is used as an edge rusher.
He is at his best when used in an aggressive manner, either playing man coverage or being asked to play downhill as a one-gap run defender or pass rusher. Smith plays fast in those instances, committing quickly and letting his athleticism take over.
Unfortunately, Smith’s tape is marred by frustrating inconsistencies and glaring holes.
His play speed slows noticeably when he is forced to read the offense, and he often winds up defending grass in zone coverage while trying to sort out the offense’s intentions. Likewise, he has a habit of biting hard on misdirection and taking himself out of the play. Smith also lacks good technique in taking on blockers and doesn’t tackle consistently.
He flashes the ability to use his length, explosiveness, and leverage to shed blockers without losing momentum, but too often he leads with his shoulder and simply stays blocked. Likewise, he flashes the ability to be a hard-hitting and reliable tackler, but too often he’s in poor position or neglects to wrap up and goes for a ‘hit’.
Overall Grade: 6.8
Smith’s projection will likely depend on the eye of the beholder and how much a front office trusts its coaching staff.
There will likely be some teams that fall in love with Smith’s athletic potential and draft him based on what he could be. Others will knock him down draft boards based on his frustrating and flawed tape.
Smith would likely project best for a defense that runs an aggressive one-gap scheme and is able to simplify the game for him. He will probably have to prove himself on special teams first, but he could be impressive for a team that asks him to play man coverage, attack a single gap as a run defender, and play as a part-time EDGE.
Smith’s ceiling is likely highest in a role similar to that of a SAM linebacker in an Under defense. He can play on the line of scrimmage, be used as a pass rusher or blitzer, use his athleticism to attack into the backfield, or have relatively simple assignments covering tight ends or running backs. Teams should avoid using him as an off-ball linebacker who plays out of coverage zones. Likewise, they should avoid putting him in positions where he needs to decipher misdirection or make complicated reads.
Smith is one of the most “boom-bust” players in this draft, with a sky-high ceiling if a coaching staff is able to unlock his full potential. However, he could also be little more than a special teams player and journeyman back-up if he can’t improve the mental part of his game.