When any NFL team drafts new players, fans want to learn as much as they can about those particular prospects. What do they do well? What do they struggle with? How about their highlight reel?
For me, I like to talk to people who actually know them best, and this is one of the best aspects of working for SB Nation. After the Steelers selected their full compliment of players, I reached out to the writers who covered them in college to get to know them a little better.
In my opinion, these writers are the ones who watch them every play, every week for multiple years. So, today we hear from Steve Helwick from The Hustle Belt (SB Nation’s MAC website) as he gives us the lowdown on Pittsburgh’s first sixth round selection Sutton Smith.
See the interview below:
Steelers fans are beyond excited to see what Sutton Smith can do at the NFL level. Although undersized, do you see him being anything more than a special teams player/hybrid linebacker?
Sutton Smith is as dominant as a player that I’ve seen in the Mid-American Conference on the defensive side of the ball, with the possible exception of former Buffalo great Khalil Mack. His unparalleled pass rushing and run stopping abilities make him such a captivating prospect. Even though his size prevented him from falling in the first five rounds, I’d be selling him very short to say he’s just a special teams player/hybrid linebacker. Although I think he’ll initiate his NFL career by earning reps on special teams, Smith has enough talent to rise to a star linebacker role.
Some have said Smith can play both inside and outside linebacker. Is this something he did in college? And was he productive at both positions?
Smith played defensive end in college and was not used as a linebacker. He was as effective as any FBS defensive end, finishing in the top three in sacks and achieving All-American honors in consecutive seasons. In high school, he actually played running back where he rushed for over 2,000 yards and 32 touchdowns in his senior year. That running back speed and agility remain evident in his game as a pass rusher. He is undersized for an NFL defensive end at 6’1”, 238, (hasn’t been a drafted NFL DE this small since Greg Morton, 1977), so the Steelers will experiment with him in several different linebacker positions. I think he’ll be most effective as an outside linebacker, because providing Smith pass rushing opportunities outside of the tackles is where he can be most lethal. Pittsburgh should give him more of an Anthony Chickillo (also a collegiate defensive end) role than a Tyler Matakevich role in order to optimize his use on the field.
For what it’s worth, Matakevich similarly dominated the college game like Smith, winning the Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award, but his build slipped him to the seventh round. Matakevich has only started one game in three seasons as a Steeler and has yet to receive a major role on the defensive side of the ball. For a team that has always valued the pass rush since the Dick LeBeau days, I expect to see Smith given more defensive snaps than Matakevich, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Steelers opt to place him in a similar position.
What would Smith’s strengths be as a player?
Smith really gains his advantage on the pass rush with his speed and acceleration. Oftentimes in college, he’d sack or pressure opposing quarterbacks just by blazing past opposing tackles on speed alone. He is adept at reacting and can time many of his jumps perfectly at the snap. Also, Smith has a knack for sticking with plays through the final whistle despite initial adversity. When he’s not stopping opposing running backs near the line of scrimmage, he can often be found downfield making a play which would normally be reserved for a linebacker or safety. That’s one of his qualities which cause many to believe he’ll become a special teams all-star in his first few NFL seasons. Lastly, with seven forced fumbles, six recovered fumbles, and two blocked punts in his last two college seasons, he creates a massive impact in the turnover game. Northern Illinois won a MAC Championship in 2018 with one of the nation’s worst offenses, and Smith’s ability to come through with home run play after home run play on defense was a vital part of the Huskies’ conference title run.
On the flip side, what would Smith’s weaknesses be?
Size is easily Smith’s greatest weakness in the NFL. It’s almost unheard of for an All-American caliber player to be recommended to switch positions upon entering the NFL. Even the undersized Kyler Murray, who measured around 5’10”, is retaining his quarterback role upon entering the league and will probably be a Week 1 starter. Smith isn’t as lucky in that regard. Playing a different position may be a learning experience for him, especially if the Steelers elect to place him in the middle of the field at inside linebacker. He’ll have to learn a different game rather than his college style of terrorizing backfields with a burst of speed around the edge. Pass rushing will be tougher at the NFL level with stronger and larger offensive linemen, so Smith will require more strength to shed blocks in order to become a force defensively.
What is Smith’s demeanor both on and off the field?
On the field, Smith plays much bigger than he is. At Northern Illinois, he played with the fire and aggressiveness of J.J. Watt. He seems like the type of player who is willing to work at a high level regardless of where he is inserted on the field. Even as the defensive star on the team, Smith still continued to give monstrous effort on special teams during his final season. The one play that comes to mind is from an early November game against Toledo, a de facto MAC West title game. Up 10-9 and struggling to make a mark on defense, Smith blocked a punt in the second quarter, immediately scooped up the football, and sprinted to the end zone to give NIU a first half advantage the team wouldn’t relinquish. Off the field, he additionally performed well at NIU, majoring in business in 3.5 years before declaring for the draft in December.
If you could sum up Smith into a word or sentence, what would it be?
To sum up Sutton Smith, I’d say he’s a low-risk, high-reward pick for the Steelers. Think of him as the Kyler Murray of defensive ends. He has a long list of strengths, reached the pinnacle of collegiate success for his position, but size and strength comparisons to other NFL players raise questions. The one thing Smith can affect is talent, and if he initially impresses at special teams, a solid NFL career may be waiting ahead.
A huge shout out to Steve for taking the time to answer my questions! Be sure to check back to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they press on throughout the offseason.