Atlanta Falcons Writer
Over the next few weeks I am going to be taking an in-depth look at each member of the Atlanta Falcons 2014 draft class. The first player up is the former University of Connecticut middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood. Selected with the No. 253 overall pick Smallwood is almost a perfect example of the typical Thomas Dimitroff draft choice. He was a productive three year starter at middle linebacker and was named a team captain in his final year at UConn. He was a vocal leader both in the locker room and on the field and had a knack for making big plays in clutch situations. In his three years as a Huskie, Smallwood totaled 332 tackles, 27 of those for a loss and 9.5 sacks. He also showed solid coverage abilities by notching 16 passes defended and a pair of interceptions.
Smallwood’s versatility is his greatest attribute. Let’s look at a few examples of Smallwood’s ability to be more than a run-stuffing middle linebacker.
In this play against Temple we can see Smallwood flashing his coverage skills and athleticism. He does a good job of reading the quarterback’s eyes and jumps the route for an easy interception and return for a touchdown. The touchdown gave Connecticut the lead and lead to their first victory of the season. Big time players make impact plays in clutch situations and this play is only one example of Smallwood coming up with a big play when his team needed it the most.
Temple has managed to get the ball back with just over a minute in the game and was pushing the ball into Connecticut territory. Right on cue Smallwood shows up to make a clutch sack to help dash the hopes of the Temple faithful. Smallwood timed his blitz perfectly, blew straight through the open gap and chased down the quarterback from behind for a very timely sack.
Once again Smallwood timed the blitz perfectly and had a clear path to the quarterback. He may not have registered a sack but he facilitated this big play for the Huskies.
This is another play that may not show up in the box score but is a great example of Smallwood’s ability to harass quarterbacks. Its another perfectly timed blitz and in this play he showed the strength to power through blocks and still effect the throw. Even though it wasn’t a positive play for Connecticut Smallwood exhibited all the skills needed to be an effective blitzer in the NFL.
Since running a 5.02 second 40 yard dash at the combine concerns about Smallwood’s footspeed have been constant and warranted. The fact that he pulled a hamstring while running his 40 did not earn him much sympathy from scouts. He was unable to rehab his hamstring enough to attempt the 40 at his pro day which only compounded the issue. He was never projected as a high round pick but few expected to see him nearly drop out of the draft entirely. It is not a stretch to assume his slow 40 time played a big role in that. Obviously Thomas Dimitroff didn’t let the slow time scare him away completely and I believe the Falcons faith will be rewarded.
If you watch the tape on Smallwood he doesn’t look like a player with a 5.0 second 40 time. He won’t be mistaken for Patrick Willis anytime soon but his foot speed shouldn’t be a liability in the pros.
He initially bites on the play fake but quickly realizes his mistake and recovers in time to break up the pass. This should have been an easy interception but he isn’t able to come down with the ball. No one is claiming Smallwood has soft hands though.
Smallwood did not earn his title of UConn defensive player of the year entirely because of his coverage skills or well timed blitzes though. He is a tackling machine. He is an aggressive, high effort run defender that does not shy away from attacking blockers head on.
Smallwood crashes inside, neatly dispatches the left guard and swallows up the back.
Once again Smallwood makes short work of the blocker and brings down the back for a short gain.
Here you can see Smallwood break his coverage on the running back to come up and stop the scrambling quarterback for a short gain. This illustrates his ability to read and react and it underscores his short-area quickness and open field tackling.
Being able to mirror and chase down mobile quarterbacks is becoming a highly sought after skill in NFL. Smallwood was charged with spying on most of the mobile quarterbacks he faced and he was very effective. This play is just another exam. His eyes never leave the Michigan quarterback and he methodically closes the distance to bring him down behind the line.
At this point in the game Connecticut was barely hanging on to a tie against the heavily favored Wolverines. With 11:23 left in the fourth they needed a stop on fourth down to keep their heads above water. The Michigan quarterback found a crack in the defense and squirted through for what, for a moment at least, looked like an easy first down. Enter Yawin Smallwood. After seeing the quarterback had tucked the ball away Smallwood streaked across the formation to help his teammate bring down the ball carrier, stripping the ball free in the process. Michigan recovered the ball but, thanks to Smallwood, failed to convert the first down. His heads up play may not have been enough to carry Connecticut to an eventual victory but it certainly illustrates how clutch Smallwood can be.
Smallwood’s film isn’t always stellar. He does have weak points in his game or he wouldn’t have fallen so far in the draft. He is prone to over-pursuit and will run himself out of the play on occasion. He is quick to bite on play action and will occasionally lose sight of the ball carrier altogether. As aggressive as he can be he doesn’t always play down hill and as a result is late to the corner on some plays. He doesn’t always take the best angles and sometimes gets embarrassed because of that. I’d bet he thought about that stiff arm for a few days after the game.
Here you can see Smallwood attack the middle of the line at the snap which makes it tough for him to get back to the edge to make a play on the runner. He actually does a pretty good job of working his way through the opposing blockers but he completely whiffs on the tackle. After avoiding Smallwood the runner skates into the open field and trots in for a momentum shifting touchdown. Prior to this play Connecticut had a pretty strong grip on the game but this big play served as a rallying point for the Wolverines and kicked off their come from behind victory.
On film Smallwood exhibits far more positive traits than negative ones but he is not without his rough edges. His weaknesses should all be simple enough to rectify with solid coaching during training camp. If he can learn to play with discipline on a more consistent basis he should have no issues making the Falcons final roster. He is a very natural fit as an inside linebacker in Mike Nolan’s hybrid 3-4 scheme and he has the potential to play any of the linebacking positions in a pinch. Aside from Akeem Dent there are no prototypical “TED” linebackers on the Falcons roster and Smallwood can fill that same role and offer far more flexibility. The fact that the Falcons drafted four linebackers speaks to the lack of depth at the position and it would not be a big surprise to see Smallwood sneak into the starting line-up by season’s end. If you are looking for a late round or undrafted player to be the next Joplo Bartu or Paul Worrilow look no further, Smallwood is your guy.