The 2022 linebacker class is headlined by Nakobe Dean and Devin Lloyd. After that, the class has a significant drop-off. The next set in the pecking order includes Christian Harris and Chad Muma. A player looking to get their name in that conversation is Brandon Smith. Penn State was the landing spot for the five-star recruit and top-ranked player in Virginia before the 2019 season.
Smith started two years for the Nittany Lions. In 2020, he posted 37 tackles, two sacks, one interception, and one fumble recovery. During the 2021 season, Smith had 81 tackles, five pass deflections, two sacks, and a forced fumble. While many expected Smith to return for his senior season, he declared for the draft a few weeks ago. In a class that doesn’t have many answers outside of Dean and Lloyd at the top, many pinpoint Smith as the next linebacker taken off the board.
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Name: Brandon Smith
Jersey: No. 12
School: Penn State
Weight: 241 lbs
Games Watched: Ohio State (2020), Auburn (2021), Ohio State (2021), Michigan (2021)
Major Injury History: None
There is a lot to gain here. Smith has glimpses of greatness when he makes quick reads and flies to the ball. Unfortunately, that isn’t very often. Those glimpses are often overshadowed by some lapses in judgment where Smith shot a wrong gap or bite on play-action and give up a chunk gain. He was tasked with doing multiple assignments at Penn State, but it was a bit concerning to see him not do better in this regard.
Yet again, this was a big disappointment when watching the tape. Smith was quite inconsistent in this regard. There were several times where Smith would be in the backfield to make a great tackle for a loss, but he couldn’t get the ball carrier to the ground. Other times, Smith was able to get the runner down. He often tries to launch himself at the ball carrier’s ankles instead of wrapping up, and when he does tackle well, sometimes it’s too high, and he needs a teammate to come in and help him secure the tackle. Smith has good enough length and athleticism to make this trait work, but it’s concerning how inconsistent his tackling is.
Block Shedding (6/10)
Yet again, this trait is concerning. With his athleticism, Smith can weave in and out of running lanes with ease. When Smith is caught in a block, he struggles to separate from the blocker. In the Ohio State game this last year, Jeremy Ruckert bullied him a time or two. Many have said that Smith needs to add muscle to improve in this regard at the next level, and that is the recommendation in this report.
Run Defense (7.75/10)
Due to his lack of strength in the run game, he struggles a bit here. Smith is better in space where he keys in on what the offense does instead of reacting to the muddiness happening in front of him from his MIKE spot. Smith does well at getting to the runner, but he seems to avoid contact sometimes. There were multiple plays in the Ohio State game this year where he was near the ball carrier but pulled up as he got near them.
Pursuit/Closing Speed (9/10)
Finally, Smith’s report gets a positive note. Thanks to his elite athleticism, Smith can make a play on the defender in the blink of an eye. The flashes of instincts were finished off by the glimpses of athleticism and burst he showed in the middle of the field where he could light up a running back. There were a few of these plays in the Auburn game this year.
Pass Rush Skills (7.75/10)
Despite having limited production on the stat sheet in this regard, that doesn’t tell the whole story. There were a few times where Smith would rush the passer to make a throw quicker than when he wanted to. It would result in the timing from the quarterback to the receiver. One play that sticks out here is the sack on Justin Fields against Ohio State in 2020. Smith was shot out of a cannon on the way to blowing up Fields in the backfield for a big play in that game.
Man Coverage (6.5/10)
Today’s NFL defenses revolve around linebackers that can hang with slot receivers in coverage. While Smith has the athleticism to match up with receivers one-on-one on paper, he struggles to stay on their hip on film. While this hopefully won’t happen at the next level, Penn State put Smith in a position where he was one-on-one with Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Smith is much better against tight ends and running backs than he is against slot receivers. Thanks to his athleticism, Smith can run with tight ends down the seam and cover running backs in the flat without any issues.
Zone Coverage (7.75/10)
As stated earlier, it is much easier for Smith to read and react out in space with his eyes on the quarterback than when he is in a jumbled mess in the box. There are a few lapses in this regard where a receiver waltzes right behind Smith and picks up a chunk gain, but other times, Smith can stay with the pass-catcher more often than not.
Ball Skills (3.5/5)
There weren’t many times outside of the Auburn game this year where Smith would’ve been able to snag an interception. Thankfully, he does have some significant ball production in his pass deflection case. Beyond that, his length will help him in tight windows with his long arms to get in the way of passes from the quarterback to the pass catchers.
Smith has experience at MIKE and WILL at the linebacker spots as well as a slot cornerback. He can drop back in coverage, be a run-stopper and rush the passer and do each role with some impact. With his high 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash out of high school, teams will need to get him in a position on the defense immediately where they think he suits best.
Smith is one of the most intriguing prospects in this class. Smith is a young player with athleticism and loads of versatility. Unfortunately, there are a lot of inconsistencies to work around, as well as defensive coaches finding out where Smith fits best at the next level. Teams will fall in love with his athleticism and versatility, but there will be times where Smith is in the right position at the right time but can’t make a play when needed. In the NFL, Smith projects best as a sub-linebacker on passing downs or a starting WILL linebacker in a 4-3 scheme.
Rookie Projection: Sub-Package Coverage Linebacker
Third Year Projection: Starting WILL Linebacker
Final Grade (71/100): Fifth Round
Player Comp: Mack Wilson