Notre Dame's Harrison Smith is having a pre-draft season for the ages. He was the most impressive safety prospect at the Senior Bowl in late January. He wowed at the NFL Combine earlier this week, sailing through coverage drills with a sense of technical edge and grace that prompted Deion Sanders to remark, "That's smooth!" Smith will likely be considered a fringe-first-round pick by next month, and he could be the best overall safety in the 2012 draft class (though Alabama's Mark Barron would certainly have something to say about that statement).
There's just one problem with Harrison Smith: few people outside of South Bend, Ind., actually knew this guy existed during his time as a Golden Domer. In fact, you'd have better luck finding a four-leaf clover than a pre-January 2012 NFL mock draft with Smith's name included somewhere in the first three rounds. Rather, his draft stock has gone from zero to 200 mph since Notre Dame's loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl last December ... and there's no sign of that draft stock slowing down anytime soon.
Yep, a pre-draft season for the ages, all right ...
This just in: the NFL is a pass-first league. If you want to run with the big dogs at this level, you need to be able to score through the air week in and week out. And if you want to lead the pack, you need to pair that strong offense with a defense that can either slow down or completely solve the other big-play passing Os currently scattered throughout the league. Sounds easy enough, right? It's not ... at all. To play defense at this level typically requires a defensive line that can penetrate protection and put constant pressure on the quarterback; nimble, instinctive linebackers (preferably ones that can shed blocks, blitz and cover); and an opportunistic secondary with great speed and awareness in coverage. Naturally, the popularity of the passing game has placed an increased emphasis on every role in the secondary, and that's why the safety position is as in-demand as ever. It's no longer enough for a safety to drift downfield and simply blast anything in their path. Players at the position today must have the technique to capably cover fluid receivers and tight ends, the instincts and strength to dismantle the run, the jets to play the point and the ball skills to create turnovers aplenty. Got all that? Simply put, you need great athleticism and a greater mind to play safety in the NFL.
However, inflated value and need haven't been enough to make safety a must-have position in the first round of the NFL Draft. The "can't-miss safety" prospects, such as Eric Berry (No. 5 overall in 2010), LaRon Landry (No. 6 overall in 2007) and the late Sean Taylor (No. 5 overall in 2004), will almost always come off the draft board early, but there have been plenty of years (2005, 2009, 2011) where a safety wasn't even selected in the first round of the draft. Why on Earth, with guys like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees turning the league into a weekly shoot-'em-up at the O.K. Corral, are NFL teams often times gun shy about taking safeties in the first round?
Because it's flippin' difficult to find a safety who can do absolutely everything asked of him, and do so at a high level!
In fact, the safety position, more often than not, becomes a sort of compromise situation for many teams. It's either, "This guy ran a mid-4.3 40-yard dash ... and he hits like a truck ... but I am pretty sure Ray Charles would've had more success as a coverage defender," or it's, "This safety has phenomenal instincts for the position, but he has the speed of a preggers Dodo bird (yes, I realize that animal is extinct; please work with me here). His 40-yard dash reminds me of Rich Eisen, but without the burst."
Finding the speed/brains combo safety is like getting out of a contract with your wireless provider--difficult, but not impossible. More often than not, however, you're talking about starting a safety who represents a base compromise, not home-run talent. In that scenario, instincts should always trump athleticism, but you simply cannot forsake speed at a position where you're essentially defending against human cheetahs. Not to place an overemphasis on the stopwatch, but rolling with a safety who can't clock above a mid-4.6 in the 40 will get you hurt sooner or later in the NFL.
Which brings us back to Harrison Smith, buzz-worthy safety who has been near-perfect this pre-draft season. Most draft reports that came in following the Combine suggested Smith would likely go somewhere in the first half of the second rou--
Hold it right there. Smith is 6'2", 215 pounds, runs a mid-4.5, possesses technique and footwork that made "Primetime" weak in the knees, plays the ball well, and demonstrated an ability to kill the run during his last two years with the Fighting Irish ... and you have him down as second-round talent? Doesn't his extensive skill set warrant a potential jump into the first-round waters this April?
Well, yes, it could, and here's why: Smith is capable of being more than just a Pro Bowl-caliber, do-everything safety in the NFL--he has the physical and mental make-up to be a playmaker at the next level (and if there's one thing Dolphins fans have learned as of late, it's that a team needs playmakers to win in this league). If Smith slips out of the first round, it likely won't be due to concerns about a bit of tightness in his hips or whether or not he's a better fit at strong safety than the free spot (examination of his tape and Combine workout suggest he could play either position at a high level). Rather, it will be because teams picking in the second half of round one don't believe Smith, a near-complete safety, is a game-changer at the position.
Great safety prospects don't always go in the first round; great playmakers at safety do. And Harrison Smith, once a virtual unknown who was lost in the starry draft hype emitting off of South Bend cornerstones Michael Floyd and Manti Te'o, is on his way to proving that he can serve in both capacities for an NFL franchise. And wouldn't you know it, there just happens to be a handful of safety-needy teams picking late in the first round ...