With everything that has happened at Arkansas, Bret Bielema is just trying to get his footing and find things to be positive about as he adjusts to life in the SEC. One of the strengths he inherited was a pair of defensive ends including Chris Smith who has been extremely productive for the Razorbacks. After having a good year as a junior, Smith has really come out and had a big impact in his Arkansas swan song.
Smith is a defensive end and could conceivably stay there in the NFL but teams may look at him as both a leo backer as he plays that role quite a bit for Arkansas, but also as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 because he does move well and he can run. Smith really can be impressive with his ability to rush the passer with a nice first step, long arms, and just a slippery feel to him coming off of the edge, but he is a wildly inconsistent run defender who has a lot of trouble holding up at the point of attack. Looking like he is probably going to go as a top 100 pick as a situational pass rusher, a team will take Smith and hope to start him there and get him to be more effective as a run player in an effort to make him an every down player.
Vitals & Build
Smith is listed at 6’3” 268lbs which is up 17lbs from his listed weight of 251lbs from his junior year. The Razorback senior has long arms and some decent functional strength when he is able to generate momentum. He can accelerate well and shows pretty good speed at times while being pretty nimble. His motor can be inconsistent. Smith’s weight in the NFL may depend largely on what position he is drafted to play.
Snap Anticipation & First Step
Smith’s ability to jump the snap depends on how hot his motor is running as well as the situation. When motivated and in an obvious passing down, Smith has shown he can jump the snap and fire off of the ball before the opponent does, giving him a significant advantage.
When Smith is tired and especially at times when it is a running down, he can be a beat late and roll out of his stance and have to make up ground on the play.
Smith’s first step is excellent and he gets a good initial burst. He can get up to speed in only a few steps and his ability to attack with his first step is a big part of that, allowing him to attack the edge or shoot the gap. The times Smith is late off of the snap, he has trouble catching up but his first step can make up some of the difference.
Smith has a few different moves he will use to take on and beat blocks but he is just a slippery player in general. He possesses long arms and seems to be able to keep offensive tackles frustrated by how well he can prevent them from getting into his body at times, which makes it so he can get off of the block. Even when they initially have him, he just seems to lean and edge his way to where he just gets off and keeps going. Smith is extremely subtle with how he does it as well, so he just looks like he gets off of the block without doing a whole lot.
Smith really likes to use a rip move that allows him to bend around the edge and flatten out to the quarterback, which is how he gets some of his production. He will also go up the field hard, get the offensive tackle to go too far and get caught leaning, then cut underneath to get pressure. Smith will flash a spin move occasionally, but needs to continue to refine it.
Lastly, Smith will use a bull rush. As an underclassman, this tended to work as a move to keep opponents honest but this has become more viable with time and this year, he has been able to collapse the pocket at times. Smith does a good job of coming with a rising blow and gaining leverage, so he is able to catch some opponents and push them back into the quarterback.
Smith’s ability to defend the run is wildly inconsistent and is usually mediocre. Part of this is due to the fact that Smith is simply not all that interested in defending the run and there is a noticeable difference in his effort and energy level when he thinks he can go get the quarterback.
The biggest problem Smith runs into is he is simply washed out too much when he goes outside and the times he attacks inside, he is engulfed and overwhelmed at the point of attack by linemen who are coming at him as opposed to preparing to absorb a blow. This is even worse when the level of competition is higher and the tackles are stronger.
To Smith’s credit, he will work to make plays and fight to get off of blocks. There are times when Smith will simply outwork the opponent, get off of a block and make a play. The problem is as a defensive end, he needs to be able to hold up at the point of attack and not get washed out only to roll off and go make a tackle down the field.
Overall, teams are not afraid to run at Smith and they should not be. He might make a few plays but he is going to get gashed in the process as he has trouble winning at the point of attack and holding his ground. And part of it just comes down to effort.
Rushing the Passer
This is where Smith is at his best. When he can jump the snap, he can be deadly attacking up the field or shooting gaps to get to the quarterback. He is slippery and keeps fighting to make plays, has good closing speed and does not miss when he has opportunities to get the sack.
Smith plays with pretty good pad level and usually does not look like he is doing much while ending up with a decent amount of pressure. He is able to keep opponents guessing because he is willing to commit to attack inside and right at them. Smith is at his best comfortable when he can race up the field, try to bend around and get to the quarterback but understands that if he is predictable, he will be stopped.
Smith has experience at both end spots and has rushed from a two-point stance as well. As long as he is allowed to get after the quarterback, he is happy and his interest is noticeably higher when he is allowed to pin his ears back and attack.
Smith does have some experience as a standup end as well as a linebacker and he has been used to occasionally cover. Typically, Smith is covering out in the flat whether it be a back or tight end but he looks pretty good and pretty comfortable while doing it. He does not have a ton of experience in this area as the Razorbacks are always looking to have him rush up field, but expect teams to put him through the paces as a potential outside linebacker in the 3-4.
Smith’s best fit appears to be in a 3-4 as an outside linebacker. Given his problems with the running game, this will make his life a little easier when it comes to being able to set up and avoid blockers as well as create momentum to have power.
Smith can certainly play in a 4-3 but it would likely begin as a situational pass rusher at least at first. His problems when it comes to holding up against the run make it tough for him to be an every down defensive end. Lastly, Smith could get some looks as a leo backer as he has experience running it for Arkansas and there are a few teams that like that position in the NFL such as Jacksonville and Seattle. Wherever Smith goes, his first responsibility will be getting after the opposing quarterback and they will try to add more as they develop him to potentially develop into an every down player.
Smith’s game is extremely comparable to Quentin Groves, now of the Cleveland Browns. Groves was drafted as a second round pick out of Auburn by the Jacksonville Jaguars where he was a disappointment and after floating around, he found a home with Ray Horton and the Arizona Cardinals as a situational pass rusher and special teams’ player. Since pairing with Horton, Groves has not quite lived up to his draft status, but he has found a role where he can excel and really help a team. In a rotation, he can be a good pass rusher and that is where Smith appears to be headed but not taking as long to find his stride at the next level.
Smith has been an extremely productive pass rusher but has really had problems being an effective run player. There are certainly tools to work with and Smith will likely have the opportunity to further put them on display likely in the Senior Bowl, it will be interesting to see if he can beat top of the line opponents consistently. Smith just seems to have a knack for making plays on the quarterback and finding a way to get pressure with his long arms and quickness. Questions about his ability to defend the run and be an every down player will likely hurt him and while not a huge deal, Smith was arrested as a junior for failing to appear in court, which teams will vet. Nevertheless, Smith could be one of the top pass rush specialists selected in the NFL Draft likely in the top 100 picks and has the potential to develop into an every down contributor.
Some of the film used in this scouting breakdown was provided by the good folks at draftbreakdown.com