As the draft gets closer and closer, there will be many "experts" that say Telvin Smith is "too light to play the position at the next level." That couldn't be further from the truth. When you watch Telvin play, this year especially, he’s stronger than ever at the point of attack. He’s playing like he’s 238, instead of his listed weight of 218.
Telvin has been playing predominantly at the WILL linebacker position this year. He’s played how we all imagined uber talented but underachiever Christian Jones would play the position. Fast, instinctive, & downhill all in one.
Tackling is obviously an important trait when evaluating linebackers. Is the linebacker "catching" the running back or his he being the aggressor and initiating contact? Is the linebacker launching himself at the running back or is he wrapping up with the proper technique and bringing the ball carrier to the ground? All the little traits matter, like taking on a fullback and leaving the proper arm free
There are certain traits that it takes to be a successful linebacker at the next level. Although it helps, you don’t have to run a 4.5 and rep 225 40 times. Here are the 3 main traits I look for in a successful linebacker.
- Coverage Skills
This is by far and away the most important trait a linebacker can have. You can run a 4.5, but if you can’t diagnose a play and know what hole to hit, your play speed is more like a 4.9. It’s all about can a linebacker read and react. Linebackers have about a second to diagnose what’s happening and make the play. That’s the difference between a tackle for a two yard loss, and a tackle for a 6 yard gain.
Instincts include reading your keys. Are the offensive lineman firing off the ball? Then you know it’s a run. Did the guard you’re lined up over pull? Then you either shoot the gap that he vacated or strafe down the line of scrimmage to make a play.
Instincts also show up in coverage. Do you know where to drop in zone? Do you find work?
Let’s get into some of Smith’s read and react skills.
Here, Smith does a great job of shooting the gap and making a TFL. He trusts what he sees, and that’s important for linebackers.
Another play where Smith diagnoses the play quickly, and makes the tackle in the backfield.
He also understands how zone coverage works.
This won’t go in the box score, but this is textbook. Smith knows exactly when to release off of the slot WR, and take away the crossing route. These are instincts in the passing game that you just can’t teach(also shows Telvin’s change of direction skills that I’ll highlight later.)
Through 6 games this season, Telvin Smith’s instincts have been very impressive. He’s playing downhill and aggressive despite is 218 pound frame.
This goes beyond just running fast. Yes, it pays to be faster, but linebackers have to have be great at changing directions, have good balance, and quick lateral movement in general. In my opinion, change of direction>speed when judging linebackers. Linebackers have to work through so much "trash" as they make their way to the ball carrier, they must excel at using their hands to shed blocks, and keeping themselves clean to finish the play.
This is a strength of Telvin’s. At times, he’s too athletic and he over runs the play or gets caught out of position. With the direction the NFL is going today, though, you need as many athletes on the field as you can get. Offenses are spreading it out more than ever, and you need linebackers that can stay on the field for 3 downs. Look at the best middle linebackers in the league. The Patrick Willis’s, Sean Lee’s, Daryl Washington’s, Derrick Johnson’s, all elite athletes with top notch change of direction skills(and all around 230-240 pounds.)
Clemson’s offense is a great test for this, they spread you out, use fake motions to get you going in every direction possible.
Smith was flying around sideline to sideline all game against Clemson. He played himself up a round, at least, putting on quite the display of rushing the passer, showing off his closing speed, and ability to finish plays.
This was the case all night, whether it was chasing down the running back, Tahj Boyd, or a receiver on a jet sweep, Smith displayed excellent athleticism.
This is a primary need in the NFL. The days of a thumper are far behind us. Being a good coverage linebacker is the difference in being a 2nd-3rd rounder and a 5th or later. Look at the 2012 draft class. The early round LBs were Ogletree, Brown, Alonso, & Bostic. All good athletes who can cover. The later rounds? Vince Williams, Nico Johnson, A.J. Klein, guys that were run first LBs.
You add so much value to your stock if you can cover, and that’s exactly why Telvin Smith might find himself selected at the end of round 2, much like Arthur Brown a year ago.
Coverage wise, it’s important to have sudden quickness and speed, to be able to keep up with tight ends and running backs. You need to have a burst, in order to be able to catch up, as well as good route recognition skills. As far as zone, in some of the GIFs above, Smith shows good awareness as far as getting the proper depth in his drops, and shows good fluidness and flexibility in his hips to open up and run with receivers, as well as showing the ability to plant, and come forward.
In this example, Smith shows off his route recognition and a burst to break on ball. Another fine play.
This next example shows Smith’s ability to turn and run. He’s an explosive player in a short area.
This is what it takes in the NFL. You have to be able to cover TE’s. This year Smith has shown the ability to turn and run in coverage. To this point, he’s played himself into the end of the 2nd round.
Still Room for Improvement
While I've been impressed with Smith’s development and improvement from last year to this year. He still can get better. There are times were he an OL locks onto him, and he can’t disengage. There’s also instances where he over runs the play, and allows a big run his way. So gap control and eye discipline have been issues at times this year. Though he’s already gotten better as the year has progressed. When he does hesitate, and doesn't trust his eyes, that’s when he gets washed out in the run. He needs to trust what he sees and play fast, that way he can play to his strengths.
It’ll be interesting to see how he finishes the year up, but to this point, there’s been plenty of good, and I truly believe he doesn't get out of the 2nd round if he keeps this up.