The Buffalo Bills’ front seven was unimpressive to say the least last season, and a lot of the team’s defensive struggles were due to a lack of athleticism at the linebacker position. Ramon Humber, Preston Brown and Lorenzo Alexander had up-and-down seasons but as the year went on, opponents picked on them in the passing game, knowing that if they could get a player the ball in space, there was yardage to be gained. Rookie Matt Milano was a pleasant surprise but with Brown and Humber set to become free agents, the Buffalo Bills are in prime position to add an impact player that can turn around their defense in the 2018 NFL draft. That player is Georgia’s Roquan Smith.
As the NFL gets more and more pass-happy, linebackers not only need to be able to defend the run, but they need to have the speed, quickness and range to cover running backs and tight ends, as well as play in space between the hashes.
Despite measuring in at just 6-foot-1, 230-pounds, Smith has the athleticism of a safety but the force and power of a 250-pound ‘backer. He just plays faster than everyone else on the field and truly possesses sideline-to-sideline speed when playing the pass. But against the run, he can hold his own, avoiding blocks and finding a way to get in on the action.
Roquan Smith was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year because he does just that. In 2017, Smith racked up 137 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two pass breakups and one forced fumble. According to Pro Football Focus, 74 of Smith’s 137 tackles were “stops” and 88 of those tackles came against the run, where he ranked sixth among all linebackers in run stop percentage. In coverage, he was targeted 39 times and allowed 31 receptions for just 209 yards (6.7 yards-per-reception).
Roquan Smith is a terror against the run. He’s so instinctive and fast to diagnose plays that opponents have an extremely difficult time getting to the perimeter, and when running between the tackles, Smith isn’t the least bit afraid to get his nose dirty.
Here are two examples of Smith’s ability to diagnose and choke the sideline while maneuvering through traffic in order to make a run stop.
Even when an offensive lineman gets to the second level to seal Smith out of the play, he showcases incredible foot quickness and agility to avoid the block, stay square and make a play on the ball. Too often, linebackers get overly judged if they don’t consistently shed blocks with ease, but in Roquan’s case, he has no need to stack and shed when he can simply get around the oncoming blocker, as you can see in the following play.
In this rep, there are just 24 seconds remaining in the first half and Oklahoma is looking to score before they head to the locker room. However, Roquan shows off his brute strength and simply stuffs the Sooners running back in his tracks, saving a touchdown that would have given Oklahoma a 17-point lead.
Roquan Smith is the prototypical modern linebacker. He’s fantastic in man coverage while covering running backs in the flats and he shows great spacial awareness in zone coverage. Additionally, he’s athletic enough to run and compete with the bigger and faster tight ends that are ever so prevelant today.
Here’s an example of Smith sniffing out a pass to the back in the flat and blowing it up.
Final Thoughts/Fit With Bills
Off-ball linebackers are seeing their value increase yearly, and Roquan Smith has the potential to be a perennial Pro Bowler due to his elite ability to defend the run, play coverage an rush the passer. While many will pigeonhole him as a “WILL” I believe he’s shown that he can handle playing “MIKE” and not be a liability at all.
In Buffalo, they’ll be running a lot of nickel, so having a player of Roquan Smith’s caliber alongside Matt Milano would make for an incredibly athletic and talented linebacker duo.