A breakdown of Atlanta Falcons 2014 NFL Draft seventh-round pick, former Connecticut linebacker Yawin Smallwood.
40 Time: 5.01 (Combine)
Bench Press: 18 (Combine)
Yawin Alexander Smallwood was born on Christmas Day, 1991 and attended Doherty Memorial High in Worcester, Massachusetts. His first name, pronounced “Yah-win,” is a mash-up of his mother (Yasa) and father’s (Winston) first names.
He redshirted his first year at UConn, but as a redshirt freshman he started all 12 games at middle linebacker, a role he would not relinquish for the remainder of his career. His first year in the starting lineup, he was second on the team with 94 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also had an interception and three pass breakups, a forced fumble and a pair of recoveries, one of which he scored on a 64-yard touchdown. As a sophomore, he started 12 games again and earned first team All-Big East honors. He led Huskies with 120 tackles, 15 for loss, four sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and one recovery. As a junior and team captain, he started 12 games with a team-leading 118 tackles, 9.5 for loss, four sacks, one interception returned 59 yards for a touchdown, nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles. As a junior, he earned All-AAC first team honors and was a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker. He declared early for the draft following his final game due to his feeling that he was ready to make transition to NFL.
Was limited in his off-season workouts due to a strained hamstring he suffered while running his 40 at the Combine. Did not participate in his collegiate pro day a few weeks later.
2013 GAMES WATCHED
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The grading system is based on a 10-point scale: 1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite.
Speed (3.0) – Struggles to cover ground in space with only adequate straight-line burst. Lack of closing speed will lead him to miss a couple of tackles and will struggle running with the quicker backs, tight ends and receivers at the next level. Doesn’t make very many plays outside the hashmarks unless he can flow freely to the ball due to lack of range. While his Combine 40 time is probably not a completely accurate reflection of his speed, I would estimate that fully healthy, his 40 time would probably be at best in the 4.85-4.9 range, which is still significantly slower than the NFL average for a linebacker: 4.75 seconds.
Strength (5.0) – Has capable strength to take on blockers as well as ballcarriers at the point of attack. Is not an overly powerful tackler that will consistently deliver blow to ballcarrier.
Tackling (6.0) – Does a good job consistently wrapping up the ballcarrier, although he doesn’t consistently deliver a blow or drive through his opponent. Tends to be a wrap-up, drag-down tackler that needs help from his teammates to make the open-field stop. His lack of closing burst will cause him to miss some stops in the open field because quicker ballcarriers can break him down due to his lack of flexibility.
Coverage (4.0) – Is very limited in man coverage because of his limited speed, range and lacks ideal hips to turn and run with more receivers. Does a very good job when working underneath zones, having a knack for reading the quarterback’s eyes and jumping throwing lanes. But again, his lack of ideal range and flexibility can prevent him from breaking up plays even when he’s properly read them because he can’t cover the ground necessary.
Point of Attack (6.5) – Can stack and shed blockers, whether fullbacks or offensive linemen at the point of attack. Does a nice job filling the hole, although you wish he could close on the ballcarrier to deliver blow. Does most of his best work between the tackles when you run at him because that doesn’t expose his lack of speed and range.
Instincts (7.0) – Shows good awareness and recognition, able to properly read the zone-read option the majority of time and does a nice job tracking the ballcarrier in the backfield when working in pursuit. His awareness also shows out when he’s working in zone coverage with his knack for tipping passes over the middle and jumping throwing lanes.
Pass Rush (5.0) – An effective blitzer that does most of his damage when he’s unblocked or when he’s matched up against a smaller running back. Does show some ability to use moves, such as a swim at times to beat an offensive linemen. But will need to develop more power and better moves to beat NFL-caliber blockers.
Based off my own grading system on a 9-point scale.
Stopgap Prospect (3.6) – Player that might have enough ability in one or two areas that there is limited upside to be a starter at the next level, but lacking in most necessary areas. Player ideally targeted for key depth roles and can become decent stopgap options for starting lineup if/when a team finds itself in a pinch. But tend to get exposed if forced to start for extended periods of time. Would be considered a bit of a reach if taken before the fifth round.
There is a lot to like about Smallwood because he has a knack for making plays, whether it’s against the run, pass, or as a blitzer.
The problem is that his lack of speed and range, while not much of a liability at the college level will become much more of a limitation in the NFL.
He’ll be facing players like Cam Newton, Reggie Bush and Vernon Davis on a weekly basis that are going to routinely expose those limitations. While playing at UConn, Smallwood rarely ever saw athletes of that caliber.
But Smallwood does a lot of the little things that make you believe despite that, he’ll manage to stick at the next level because coaches will like his intelligence and toughness. And ultimately as time passes, he’ll probably be able to grow in certain areas that he’ll be better equipped to hide some of those athletic limitations down the road to make him into a competent stopgap starter.
As a depth guy, he’s going to be fine. He’s the type of player that in an ideal world will only be asked to play in the event of an injury to a starter. If you have to plug him in for a couple of games, then you’ll be more than happy with his production. But over the course of an entire season, and certainly multiple seasons, his liability in coverage and inability to reliably make plays in space will get exposed.
In a lot of ways, Smallwood is like a poor man’s Curtis Lofton. Lofton too was limited by lack of ideal range and coverage abilities at the NFL level, which put a firm ceiling on his ability as an NFL middle linebacker. The problem is that in the days since Lofton joined the Falcons in 2008, the league has become more and more a passing league.
There were on average about 7 more pass plays per game in 2013 than they were in 2008. And if that continues on a similar trajectory in the future, that means that by the time a player like Smallwood reaches his contract year, there could be 12-15 more pass plays per game than when Lofton first came into the league. That’s a dozen or more opportunities for an opposing offense to exploit a player like Lofton or Smallwood, and that can be the difference between winning and losing in a passing-driven league.
The only way Smallwood could survive in such a league is if he was playing on a very talent-laden front seven in a 3-4 scheme. That way there would be six other top players that could do a better job masking his deficiencies.
It’s not say that Smallwood can’t start in the NFL. It’s just that he probably won’t be a good starter in the NFL. He’s a guy that might be tolerable for a year or so, but at some point his team is going to move on and put in a more athletic playmaker that can better deal with the matchup issues that undoubtedly will come in the NFL.
The comparison I would make there is a player like Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Over the course of six years in the NFL, Dunbar has managed to start over 50 games. Some of those have been because other linebackers have been injured as well as because his teams have not had better options. His toughness and intelligence allow him to get by as a starter, but he’s nothing more than a stopgap. But over the course of Dunbar’s career, his limitations in coverage have become more and more a liability and it subsequently compelled the St. Louis Rams to use a first-round pick on a linebacker in Alec Ogletree that projects to be a very good coverage linebacker.
And the same would likely happen for the team the starts Smallwood for a year, in which they would go out of their way to draft a linebacker that could be a nickel specialist to limit the potential that Smallwood would get reps in those situations.
One of the things I like about Smallwood is that he appears to be a detail-oriented player. He does a lot of the little things such as knowing how to get leverage against a blocker when it comes to outside contain when defending the run.
These little things helped him in college be in position to make plays that his athleticism alone would not allow him to make.
The problem of course is that the jump to the NFL is significant. He won’t be able to exploit the lower level of quarterback and offensive line play that he was routinely able to do at UConn when it came to beating blockers and jumping throwing lanes when passers stared down their reads.
There weren’t that many slot receivers he was asked to cover at UConn that could run sub-4.4 40s like Randall Cobb and Brandin Cooks can at the NFL level.
How many backs like Darren Sproles, Andre Ellington and Reggie Bush was he asked to cover in man coverage UConn? Probably none if any. Schools like Michigan, Towson, and Temple just aren’t sporting that caliber of athlete, while pretty much every NFL team will have at least one or two of those guys.
That’s why I don’t see Smallwood being an effective starter in Atlanta. If he was asked to play a couple of games as an injury fill-in for a starter at inside linebacker, then I think he could be solid. Especially if that was to happen two or three years down the line where he was a lot more comfortable with Mike Nolan’s scheme and what his assignments would be.
In the meantime, Smallwood can add value on special teams and provide depth, but his long-term prospects as a starter are minimal. He might get the opportunity down the road to earn a starting job, but I think that would likely be an indictment of the Falcons defense rather than an indicator of Smallwood’s prowess.
While I think Smallwood is a more instinctual defender than Akeem Dent, ultimately I think Smallwood would be an even bigger liability in coverage because Dent is simply a better athlete.
Ultimately the player you hope Smallwood can grow into is similar to what Stephen Nicholas was at the end of his tenure in Atlanta. Nicholas was a much better athlete than Smallwood coming out of South Florida in 2007 and became a decent stopgap the past couple of years because he was a tough, hard-nosed, assignment-sound football player.
But again, the 2012 version of Nicholas is really the starting point for Smallwood. Like Nicholas, Smallwood can be effective blitzing and working in zone coverage if he can keep things in front of him. But if he’s asked to turn and run with even an average starting tight end or back, it’s a big play waiting to happen.
Smallwood could benefit from dropping some weight to add a bit more quickness to his game. It won’t transform him into a coverage maven, but it should help him be a step or two quicker when asked to play in space. Slimming down to around 235 pounds also shouldn’t have a major negative impact on his abilities as a run defender, since he’s not really a guy that throws his weight around. He’s a sound, wrap tackler that typically will hold up the ballcarrier until the rest of the calvary comes.
Linebackers with Smallwood’s limited athleticism sometimes are asked to make the conversion to offense as a fullback, and it would not be the most shocking thing if that occurred here in Atlanta down the road. But that only becomes a possibility down the road if/when the Falcons are able to add better options at backup linebacker. That probably isn’t the case right now, since Smallwood could probably come in right away and be the team’s preferred option over Marquis Spruill and Dent as the backup behind Paul Worrilow at middle linebacker.
Smallwood could also play some strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 scheme if his primary roles will be blitzing and playing the run versus covering tight ends.
A good comparison for Smallwood in terms of what sort of player he could become in the NFL is current Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Joe Mays. In his fourth year in 2011, Mays gave the Denver Broncos solid production as a starting middle linebacker, particularly when he could split reps with a nickel specialist like Wesley Woodyard. But he struggled in January against better competition, indicative of his firm ceiling as a starter. Then the following year Mays lost his starting job to a 36-year old Keith Brooking due to poor coverage abilities. This past year, he gave the Houston Texans decent production in the absence of Brian Cushing as a two-down defender.
But the problem is that as Mays has gotten older, his salary has also risen making it harder for teams to justify paying a =two-down player approaching age 30. It’s why the Chiefs are now Mays’ fourth team going into his seventh year.
How Smallwood can avoid that journeyman fate is to become a really valuable player on special teams for the Falcons and also produce if/when he’s called upon as a backup. As the Falcons showed with Nicholas in 2011, they’re willing to pay a guy that can give “plus” value on special teams as well as be a relatively trustworthy player on defense.
Like Nicholas, I could certainly see Smallwood playing the better part of a decade in Atlanta because he has all the makings of being a valuable role player and backup, just with significant limitations as a starter.