Former Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith is a projected top 10 pick in the NFL draft.
In part, he can thank the Falcons’ Deion Jones for helping to change the perception, size and weight parameters for middle linebackers.
“I definitely watch Deion Jones,” Smith said. “He plays for the Atlanta Falcons and from Athens, Georgia it’s not very far. Actually just being able to watch a guy like that who came into the league and was labeled as undersized and, you know, he fought against a lot of obstacles and went over them and got through it. So he’s done a lot of good things for the Falcons. And made a Pro Bowl this year. So that speaks for itself.”
Smith also consults with former Georgia standout and Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who was a safety in college.
“I definitely have talked to TD some,” Smith said. “More so, I will talk to him after this process dies down a little bit, after I finish up. But he’s been there for me and (has) given some advice.”
Jones was the fastest linebacker at the combine in 2016 out of LSU. He weighed 225 pounds and was drafted in the second round. Conversely, in 2008 when the Falcons also needed a middle linebacker, they drafted Curtis Lofton out of Oklahoma. He was an old-school “thumper” linebacker, who weighed 245 pounds when he was drafted.
But NFL offenses have evolved to getting running backs in space against linebackers, seeking mismatches. Linebackers in today’s NFL must be fast and cover much more ground.
Smith was measured at 6-foot, 7/8 inches and weighed 236 pounds. He was listed at 225 pounds last season at Georgia. He said that was his sophomore year weight.
“I love Roquan Smith,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I think he’s today’s NFL off-the-ball linebacker and it’s mostly about speed. He’s 225 pounds. Deion Jones was drafted in the second round in Atlanta two years ago. He’s the prototype. I think Roquan Smith takes it a step farther. A very similar type guy. I love the way he plays.”
Smith fits the new prototype and could be headed to the Raiders, who need a middle linebacker, with the 10th overall pick.
“I feel like I can make a tremendous impact on the defense, just with my playmaking ability, my leadership qualities,” Smith said. “And everything that I possess as a football player on and off the field. I feel like that will definitely elevate any defense.”
After Smith’s much-publicized de-commitment from UCLA to Georgia after linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich joined the Falcons’ staff, he went on to play 38 games for the Bulldogs and totaled 252 tackles and 20.5 tackles for losses.
Like Jones, Smith can work the field for sideline to sideline hunting down ball carriers.
“My relentless pursuit,” Smith said. “I believe in that. I was always taught, if you start something, finish. And take advantage of every opportunity. And tomorrow is not promised.
“If it’s my last play that I ever play, how do I want to go out? So I feel like every play, I treat like it’s my last play. And I bust my tail like I don’t have a next play.”
He’ll have to work on his pass coverage, but he has the attack blitz part of the position down. He had 6.5 sacks for the Bulldogs last season.
“Just timing it up,” Smith said. “Preparation. Knowing the snap counts of my opponents.”
Smith struggled with his decision to enter the draft, which will be held April 26-28 in Arlington, Texas.
“It was my last chance at being a child and not having to worry about adult responsibilities,” Smith said. “So that definitely played a part. When I was talking to many individuals who may have left college early, they were saying they really missed college.
“If they could go back one time. So really taking everything like that into consideration. I really thought about it hard, but at the end of the day, after weighing the pros and cons, it was in my best interest, so I did leave.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com