Yawin Smallwood is a classic case of a player whose draft stock was overvalued by those not working directly for NFL teams, though his actual talent may not have been overvalued at all. I thought Smallwood would be a fourth or fifth round player, which was the rough consensus in the scouting community. He wound up going late in the seventh round.
Smallwood's lack of elite tools, particularly speed, likely played into this. There's still ample reason to believe that the intelligent, hard-working former Connecticut linebacker has enough skill and natural football acumen to rise up as a useful player, and if you're an inveterate optimist, perhaps a future starter. Let's measure Smallwood.
The Falcons seemed to make it a priority to go after linebackers with a terrific ability to diagnose plays and sense where the ball is going. While Smallwood can't always make the play, he has this sense in spades.
Watch the very first play against Maryland below. You see Smallwood figure out the play action immediately, and he's watching the quarterback as he rolls back into coverage, arriving in time to break up the pass attempt. There's nothing extraordinarily athletic about the play, but the speed with which he figures out what's happening and gets himself in the correct position to make a play is impressive.
On the very next play, you see Smallwood stick with the running back and make a nice tackle. When he's able to keep the play in front of him, Smallwood has the straight-line speed to be a royal pain in the ass, and he should be immediately useful due to his ability to sniff out the run. That sound tackling ability and willingness to make the hit is going to delight Falcons fans, who are pitifully, chronically unused to it.
Maryland provides no one's idea of an impossible matchup, but Smallwood shows you a little bit of everything that makes him a quality player. What I was struck with again and again as I watched his plays from three UConn games from 2013 and 2012 was that he's remarkably well-rounded, and is a truly max-effort player who never stops fighting. That'll endear you to a fanbase mighty quickly.
It's hard to watch Smallwood and not come away with the impression that he's going to struggle with truly speed players. He's fleeter of foot than his 40 time would suggest, but his ability to change direction, backpedal and move fluidly sideways simply isn't where any of us would hope to be. Given that Smallwood will sometimes be called upon to drop back into coverage, that's not something that bodes particularly well.
Like Marquis Spruill, Smallwood can struggle to disengage from blocks, flashing hand use that could charitably be called inconsistent. It's less an issue of strength—which is part of Spruill's issue—than it is the aforementioned hand use, which is something Glenn Pires is going to need to work closely with him on over the coming months.
I love when examples pop up right at the beginning of game clips. Here, against Louisville in 2012, you see Smallwood figuring out the run play immediately, but he's taken out of the play completely by the guard, who launches into him and effectively ties him up.
Overall, Smallwood is just not an elite athlete, and he the field awareness I love from him isn't present at all times. If he washes out with the Falcons, that's likely how we'll write his Atlanta career eulogy.
I turned to Andrew Callahan of The UConn Blog, SB Nation's resource for all things husky and smallwoody, with a few questions about Smallwood during his college years. I hope you'll find Callahan's excellent, in-depth answers illuminating.
Dave: I've watched a couple of UConn games to get a feel for Smallwood's ability, and I find myself awfully impressed. Why do you think he was still available in the seventh round, and what do you consider his great strengths?
Andrew: There's little I can offer in regards to why Smallwood was still available so late in the draft, but I think keeping the context of his selection in mind, as one pick out of one of the deepest draft classes the NFL has ever seen, is important here. Word around Storrs floated around that Smallwood should land somewhere in late second-early third day territory, and anything beyond that would be a significant drop. As it turns out, he fell behind teammate Shamar Stephen (Minnesota Vikings), who was projected as a late-round pick and also went off the board in the seventh round.
In terms of Smallwood's strengths, two things stood out to me after breaking down all of the Huskies' games this past season. First, he truly is an all-around linebacker. At one time or another, UConn deployed him in every conceivable manner by sending him in on a blitz, a delayed blitz, out to cover man-to-man, in a short zone or operating as a quarterback spy. Of course, the ability to be successful in all of these roles not only necessitates sufficient athleticism, but enough football smarts, which brings me to my next point.
Smallwood, you'll find, is a very heady player. His IQ is a result of both solid on-field instincts and an excellent work ethic, something proven over his redshirt sophomore year when he started on an excellent defense that produced future NFL draft picks Sio Moore, Dwayne Gratz, Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Trevardo Williams and, this year, Stephen. Or, for a more recent example, check the end of the UConn's game against Temple last November.
Tied at 21 apiece with under five minutes to go, the Owls faced a key third down and five, after they had surrendered three unanswered touchdowns, all of which came in the second half. In efforts to keep the chains moving, the Temple offense went to one of its favorite intermediate route combinations, a design that they fortuitously had yet to use all game. Recognizing a pre-snap motion that typically preceded the two-man route scheme, Smallwood shifted from his short zone in the Huskies' Cover 1 defense at the snap of the ball. Then, he picked off the pass and ran it back 59 yards the other way to seal UConn's first win of the season (yes, it was a long year).
Now, this isn't to give the impression Smallwood is the next Keith Brooking or Brian Urlacher or that I deserve any "Homer of the year" award. He has been knocked for occasional bites on play-action, "drag" tackling and trouble with shifty backs out of the backfield due to his taller, somewhat lankier frame. These are all valid critiques. Though, in all my time spent breaking down Smallwood's film, I routinely came away with the same feeling you did-- damn impressed. And that's because the kid has all the tools you could want to play at a very high level.
Dave: In your mind, what's the ideal role for Smallwood? Can he start at the NFL level?
Andrew: Early on, I believe Smallwood would be best suited as sub-package or coverage linebacker for Atlanta. Over time, I think he would be best suited as an inside ''backer in a 3-4 scheme, and, from what I've read, it looks like the Falcons may be headed in that direction full-time.
In this instance, Smallwood would operate strictly within one of the two inside linebacker spots of their base defense, where taking on offensive guards in the run game is a necessity. At this point, I wouldn't ask him to do that on a regular basis, though his longer arms will certainly be an asset in this area. He needs to add a bit of weight, particularly in his upper body, before becoming a full-time, impact player on the inside.
However, given the proper time and coaching, Smallwood could most definitely start at the NFL level.
Dave: What should we know about Yawin the person?
Andrew: Having only interviewed him a handful of times, I can't speak much to this area. Now, when I did, he was always very courteous with the media, answering every question without an issue. Furthermore, Smallwood was highly regarded by teammates, who voted him as one of four team captains on last fall's team. The only negative I ever heard was he's a bit soft-spoken. But, there's no way in hell you would know by his play, nor any doubting he's strong individual, who is greatly dedicated to becoming a very good football player.
Dave: How awesome is his name? Seriously. Did you guys have any good nicknames?
Andrew: Yikes! How could we have missed that?! No, no nicknames on this end. Though, sources say, the UConn student paper (of which I am a proud alum) at one time had some of fun concocting headlines that played with his name and, thankfully, never ran in print.
In the end, we have to hope the college-based evaluations of Smallwood, like Andrew Callahan's, were more accurate than those from NFL teams that caused him to plummet to the end of the 2014 NFL Draft. At worst, Smallwood looks like a useful reserve thumper who can play inside and spell the Falcons' starters. At best, he's got a shot to be a starter for a few years as an ILB in the Falcons' new-look defense, and a fine one, at that. Either way, there's a chance he delivers tremendous value for a seventh round pick.
Let's hope he reaches those heights. Your thoughts?