2015 NFL Draft: Bengals’ Derron Smith Could Be Steal of the Year


Nov 29, 2014; Fresno, CA, USA; Fresno State Bulldogs free safety Derron Smith (13) reacts after a play against the Hawaii Warriors in the fourth quarter at Bulldog Stadium. The Bulldogs defeated the Warriors 28-21. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals had yet another impressive draft performance this year.  The Bengals were able to ensure the future of their offensive line in impressive fashion; they solved their issues at the tight end with two solid selections, and bolster their defensive by adding players across the entire unit.  But when Cincinnati took the stage in the sixth round they may have found the steal of the year.  With the 197th pick in the draft, the Bengals selected Fresno State safety Derron Smith.

Smith is an incredibly impressive player despite his late draft selection.  In fact, it seems clear that I’m hardly the only one who feels this way.  NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein gave Smith a “Round 2 or 3” grade while CBS had him ranked as the 110th overall prospect and the third best free safety in the draft.

Derron Smith’s play and production justified his high draft grades.  During the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Smith was all over the field evidenced by his stats.  Smith accounted for 166 tackles (nine for loss), four sacks, 13 interceptions (two of which were returned for touchdowns), and 14 pass deflections.  Now if that doesn’t impress, I don’t know what would.

Smith’s senior season wasn’t as impressive on paper and his draft value may have taken a hit, which was highlighted by Zierlein (in Smith’s draft profile).

"“Tried to do too much in 2014 for inconsistent Fresno State defense. Ventured beyond prescribed area with mixed results.”"

This undisciplined play could be seen as a negative, but I attribute this more to Smith trying to ameliorate Fresno State’s poor defense and lackluster year overall.  From 2012 to 2014, the Bulldogs’ defense went from ranked 22nd in the FBS (2012) to 111th (2014).  Consequently, Fresno State went from a team that finished 20-6 from 2012-2013 to a team that finished 6-8 in 2014.  Being one of the leaders of the defense, and arguably its best player, Smith seemed to be a player who was trying to account for his unit’s deficiencies more than a player who lacked discipline and knowledge.

In fact, knowledge may be one of Derron Smith’s stronger points.  As a former high school quarterback, Smith possesses a strong football I.Q.  This is further supported by his ability to always be around the ball and makes plays on defense.  In this way, it’s hardly surprising that Smith became a turnover machine.

Derron Smith is also a capable and willing tackler despite his smaller stature.  He isn’t afraid to “mix it up” in the box, and always sticks himself in front of ball carriers.  This can be seen easily when watching some of Smith’s work.

Smith’s size was a knock on him during the pre-draft process.  In his NFL.com draft profile, Zierlein provided a quote from an AFC executive regarding his size.

"“His height is going to hurt his draft stock. He’s a good hitter and just average in coverage, but I’m telling you that teams don’t like their safeties to be 5’10 or below.”"

Size does matter in football, but not always and it doesn’t seem to in the case of Smith.  He makes plays all over the field, is capable of covering players in the slot, is a capable blitzer, and plays with enough aggression to offset any worry about his size.  Also for reference, when compared to current Bengals standout safety Reggie Nelson (5’11”, 210 pounds), Derron Smith (5’10”, 200 pounds) suddenly doesn’t seem that small.  Smith could certainly add some muscle once hitting an NFL training program and could eventually become a near exact replica of Nelson who doesn’t seem to suffer due to his size.

Adding to Smith’s value is his experience on special teams.  He seemed to be a productive coverage player, which can also be seen from his tape, and does have some experience as a returner, though I would temper any expectations in this regard.

Smith did not participate at the combine, but did put up some solid numbers at his Pro Day.  When juxtaposed to the combine numbers of other safeties, Smith would’ve finished 13th in the 40-yard dash, 10th in the vertical jump, sixth in the broad jump, fourth in the 3-cone, and sixth on the bench.  His only concerning performance would’ve been in the 20-yard shuttle where Smith would’ve finished 16th.  But this is all in the context that Bengals fans understand best; combine numbers only mean so much (see Vontaze Burfict).

Derron Smith is a highly productive and talented player.  After looking over his tape and scouting reports, I’m frankly perplexed as to why he dropped so far in the draft.  He has the special teams ability to come in and make an impact from his first day regardless of where he sits on a depth chart.  This while he also possesses the instincts, savvy, and athletic ability to cover slot players, and has proven to be a promising safety and one who could start at the NFL level.

With the Bengals, Smith will be afforded ample time to sharpen his skills as the team still possesses the staring impressive duo of Reggie Nelson and George Iloka.  But once 2016 rolls around, anything could happen.  With both Nelson and Iloka hitting free agency, it’s possible that Derron Smith could find himself vying for a starting job, and in my opinion, one that he could flourish in.

Next: Marcus Hardison Addition Raises Tough DL Questions for Bengals