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The 3-year Fighting Irish starter Smith has been on an up and down ride on his way to the NFL. After and impressive senior year in which he recorded 91 tackles and seven interceptions, Smith decided to come back for a 5th year during which he failed to record a single interception.
However an impressive combine during which Smith ran an impressive 4.57 40 and the fastest 3-cone of any safety (6.63 seconds) has boosted Smith’s draft stock.
Smith’s performance at the combine shows that he has very good athleticism to go along with excellent size. He has the intangibles you would like, is extremely competitive and was a leader on the field for Notre Dame.
He is a hard hitter and has the speed to make tackles all over the field. He also has the ability to play multiple positions, as he showed in 2009 when he played outside linebacker for much of the year.
In coverage, he is best suited for zone coverage, where he can utilize his athleticism and range to make plays, as he showed in ’10 when he had seven interceptions.
One problem with Smith’s game is he often fails to wrap up when going for tackles, looking for the knockout hit too often. He is also sometimes too aggressive at times, making him susceptible to play action.
Despite an excellent cone time, usually a good measure at how good a prospect can turn and run, Smith is unable to turn and run smoothly, and plays too stiff in space. Because of this he struggles in man-to-man coverage.
Finally, Smith was unable to come up with a single interception his final season, which leads some to question how productive he will be at the next level.
After giving up the second most passing yards in NFL history, the Patriots are in need of an upgrade in the secondary. All three safeties from last year, James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown and Patrick Chung, were unimpressive.
The Patriots have addressed safety early in the draft recently, picking Chung in the second round of ’09 and Brandon Meriweather in the first round of ’07. Meriweather showed promise, but in the end did not live up to his first round billing, and Chung has been average at best. This could scare that Pats off from using another early pick on this position.
On the other hand, this position is a huge need. Chung is young and has shown promise in the past, but Ihedigbo is too much of a liability to remain a starter. Despite starting more than Chung or Brown, he managed to break up just 1 pass while recording no interceptions. While the Patriots tried to address this need in free agency by going after former Redskins safety LaRon Landry, they were unable to land anyone.
Enter Harrison Smith. Smith benefits from a relatively weak safety class, and his stock has risen since his impressive combine. What Smith brings to the table is a big athletic safety who is an on-the-field leader and an aggressive player. He has moved up from a projected second round pick, to a projected low first/high second pick.
He has the speed to make tackles all over the field and excels in zone coverage. His speed and willingness to hit will make him at the very least an excellent special teams player at the beginning. What will make him appealing to Bill Belichick is his versatility: he played both safety positions as well as outside linebacker at Notre Dame.
Unfortunately, Smith is flawed in his coverage technique, and is a liability in man-to-man coverage. His aggressive style of play can make him susceptible to play action passes and misdirection plays.
Because of his difficulties in man-to-man coverage Smith translates to a strong safety in the NFL. Although the Patriots would ideally like a more polished cover safety, most likely Smith will be best one available at #27 if the Patriots do not trade up. While he may struggle at first, Smith could develop into a solid strong safety with proper coaching.