Sutton Smith was as dominant of a defender as we’ve ever seen in the MAC.
In his two seasons as a starting defensive end at Northern Illinois, Smith eased his way into backfields and created havoc. The back-to-back reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year registered 29.0 sacks, 56.5 tackles for loss, and 124 total tackles during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He led all FBS players with his 14 sacks in 2017 and ranked third in the nation with an impressive follow-up act of 15 sacks in 2018.
Smith was redshirted upon arrival to DeKalb and played briefly as a freshman. But in his sophomore and junior seasons, he was as dangerous as any pass rusher in college football. Smith was named a Consensus All-American in 2017 and 2018, with several first team nominations by major selectors.
When his college career came to a conclusion in Boca Raton in late December and he had obtained nearly every individual accomplishment for a defensive end, Smith — already a college graduate — declared for the NFL Draft. He received an invite to the Senior Bowl where he saw some playing time in the second half in his North team’s 34-24 win over the South.
Smith’s transition to the NFL isn’t similar to the majority of draft hopefuls. He’s learning different positions throughout this process and will likely transition to outside linebacker. At 6’0” and 233 pounds, many deem Smith too small for an NFL defensive end despite his off-the-charts numbers as a DE in college. According to SB Nation, there hasn’t been an NFL defensive end 6’1” and 240 pounds or smaller since Greg Morton in 1977.
In fact, Smith was much smaller than his current measurements prior to college and excelled in a different position in high school. As a senior at Howell High School in Missouri, Smith rushed for over 2,000 yards and 32 touchdowns while playing running back. That running back speed is still evident in Smith on defense.
He’s an incredibly fast pass rusher, with a great jolt of speed boosting him off the line of scrimmage. Smith utilizes this gift to his advantage when blazing by larger, slower linemen. At the NFL Combine, Smith impressed onlooking scouts with a 4.69 40-yard dash, one of the fastest times for players classified as EDGE rushers. Additionally, he’s mastered several effective go-to moves on the pass rush, which include spin moves and hesitations.
But most importantly, Smith’s concentration is top-notch. He never gives up on plays despite initial adversity and attacks with full-speed until the whistle. A great example of this quality was the game-changing play in Northern Illinois’ 19-point comeback to defeat Buffalo in the 2018 MAC Championship Game.
For a defender that put up such monstrous stats from the defensive end position, he doesn’t have too many glaring weaknesses outside of size and the fact that he has to catch up on a new position in the NFL. Smith’s 233 pounds may give him a lot less leverage against larger and more powerful NFL linemen, but he still possesses substantial strength as demonstrated by his 25 reps of 225 on the bench press at the NFL Combine.
Smith has all the tools to thrive as a utility player at the next level. Outside of his pass rushing and run stopping abilities, Smith played a major role in other areas for NIU. He finished his collegiate career with four touchdowns. On his six fumble recoveries as a Huskie, he cashed three of them in for touchdowns. He also blocked a punt, scooped it up, and returned it for a touchdown — unassisted — in Northern Illinois’ 38-15 win over Toledo on November 7. NIU’s defense ranked among the elites in many categories (e.g. tackles for loss) in 2017 and 2018, and Smith was the engineer behind the unit.
As a rookie, Smith will likely take his array of talents to special teams. Given his speed, tackling ability, and his ability to create turnovers and game-altering plays, an NFL franchise will likely select Smith to be a part of the kickoff/punt team. With success in these opportunities, he may transition to a full-time outside linebacker, a position which he’ll continue to develop in once landing on an NFL roster. That opportunity should arise on the third day of the upcoming draft, ranging anywhere from the fifth to the seventh round. His college production was too great for him for teams to disregard during the draft, and Smith will be a low-risk, high-reward pickup.