Months into the offseason, the 2021 edge rusher class remains unsettled. The complexion of the class is starting to come into focus, but the rankings are still in flux. The Senior Bowl was one particular event that threw a wrench into the conventional knowledge surrounding the EDGE class. Under-the-radar players flashed top-end traits, and earned real estate on the draft debate stage. One of those players was UNI edge rusher Elerson Smith, an exciting NFL Draft prospect in his own right.
Elerson Smith NFL Draft Profile
- Position: EDGE
- School: Northern Iowa
- Current Year: Redshirt Senior
- Height: 6’6 1/4″
- Weight: 252 pounds
- Wingspan: 83″
- Arm: 33 1/4″
- Hand: 10 1/2″
Tony Pauline’s Elerson Smith Scouting Report
Positives: Athletic pass rusher with terrific size and upside. Fires off the snap, shows flexibility, and plays with excellent pad level. Quickly changes direction, immediately alters his angle of attack, and chases the action in pursuit. Effectively uses his hands and slices inside blocks. Fluid when asked to twist or stunt, rushes the edge with speed, and keeps his feet moving.
Negatives: Displays average strength at the point of attack and gets controlled by a single blocker or annihilated at the point of attack. Struggled against the run in 2019.
Analysis: Smith is an athletic pass rusher who came to the Senior Bowl bigger as well as stronger and had three good days of practice. He’s developing into a defensive end in a four-man line and comes with both growth potential and upside. Smith could be a pass-rush specialist early in his NFL career and eventually develop into a starter.
Elerson Smith Player Profile
Sometimes, physically standing out isn’t good enough. In high school, Elerson Smith was a 6-foot-6, 190-pound athlete. Already bigger and faster than most kids his age, he was a basketball player, a wrestler, and a track and field athlete, in addition to being a football player. On the football team, Smith’s size enabled him to find success as a tight end and a defensive end for his school.
As promising as Smith seemed, however, bigger programs didn’t see it the same way. Smith was an unranked recruit in the 2016 class on many boards and only a two-star recruit on 247 Sports’ board. Despite coming from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Smith drew no interest from his hometown team, the Minnesota Golden Gophers. He eventually committed to Northern Iowa, one of the few teams willing to give him a chance.
Elerson Smith’s career as a UNI edge defender
Even with his long frame, Smith needed time to get his weight up to compete at the FCS level. He redshirted the 2016 season for this purpose, working to ready himself for a more involved role. He’d need to wait even beyond that, however. In 2017, as a redshirt freshman, Smith still didn’t see any action.
In 2018, after two years of preparation, Smith finally broke into the starting lineup. He was a key contributor on the defensive line, amassing 19 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and 2 pass breakups in 13 games. It was a nice jump for Smith, but it wouldn’t compare to his 2019 season. In 2019, Smith exploded, logging 63 total tackles, 14.0 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, 5 forced fumbles, 4 pass deflections, and 2 blocked kicks.
Smith’s complicated experience in 2020
Off of his statistical production, Smith could have declared for the 2020 NFL Draft. However, concerns around his size and competition level played a hand in leading him to seek out another year of production to improve his résumé. He intended to finish his Panthers career on a strong note, but those plans were disrupted when the FCS fall football season was canceled.
The FCS eventually decided to move its football season to the spring to provide players with an opportunity to play. Smith, however, had NFL Draft preparation to take into account. A spring season would interfere with his pre-draft preparation. Thus, Smith chose to opt out of the FCS’ spring season and officially declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. He also accepted an invite to the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl.
Analyzing Elerson Smith’s NFL Draft profile
Elerson Smith’s size carried over from high school. Now, he’s one of the longest edge rushers in the 2021 NFL Draft. Standing over 6-foot-6, he moves gracefully for his size on tape. He doesn’t always play to his elite explosiveness, but he still has exceptional get-off, lateral agility, and some degree of bend. However, it’s worth noting that, on tape, he was playing around 10 pounds lighter than he is now. Nevertheless, the fact stands — Smith is a high-upside physical specimen.
Smith’s athleticism helps him engage tackles. Yet, his length is even more predominant in his approach. With his wingspan, Smith can compete against larger linemen. His length allows him to establish anchors when engaging, and he has good leverage when using long swipes to knock opponents off-balance. The UNI edge rusher does well to play with enough lean to cement that leverage, and he has fairly good balance as well. Furthermore, Smith’s length and reach can help him in pursuit.
What are the concerns with Smith?
As one might expect from a long, lanky edge rushing prospect, Smith — at least on tape — falls far short of the required thresholds for power, strength, and mass. He’s able to use his explosiveness and length in tandem with one another to provide occasional flashes of artificial power, but raw power is seriously lacking in his game.
Rushing the passer, Smith often fails to sustain his rush against stronger linemen. Once they latch on, the UNI edge rusher doesn’t have the strength or punch power to lodge them loose. Smith’s hand movements also don’t bring the necessary force, and his frame itself doesn’t give linemen much mass to deal with. Some linemen can throw themselves forward and generate displacement on contact.
However, Smith needs more mass if he wants to be more imposing. The same holds true in run defense: Smith’s length helps him, but he still struggles to disengage, and he can be moved easily by stronger players.
Smith’s athletic testing
Elerson Smith’s athleticism has never been much of a surprise. It’s clear on tape that he’s an easy mover for his size, and his pro day performance only confirmed that. At over 6-foot-6 and 252 pounds, Smith logged a 1.6 10-yard split, a 4.78 40-yard dash, a 41.5-inch vertical, and a 127-inch broad jump. He also put up 26 bench reps with 83-inch arms.
Smith no doubt has elite explosive capacity and length. The question has long been whether he can put it all together at the next level and shed his concerns against more powerful linemen. Luckily for Smith, his athleticism dictates that at least one team will give him a chance to reach his maximum potential.
Elerson Smith’s best fits in the 2021 NFL Draft
Smith’s tape analysis is largely a mixed bag. The UNI EDGE has a great motor and exciting athletic tools, but he needs to get bigger before he can sustain a role in the NFL. Luckily for Smith, there’s good news. Smith came into the Senior Bowl measuring at 262 pounds, almost 20 pounds heavier than his college weight of 245. Smith followed up that measurement by playing very well against opposing linemen in one-on-one drills, showing improved play strength to go along with high-end athleticism.
In my summary practice report on Smith, I wrote as much.
“Elerson Smith was subtly one of the most consistent linemen at the Senior Bowl based on my National Team practice reports. He flashed several times every day, and displayed impressive athleticism, twitch, and hand speed to go with his 6-foot-6, 262-pound frame and 83-inch wingspan. Going up against a talented group of linemen, Smith passed his first test of the offseason. It still remains to be seen if he has enough density and play strength to be a consistent threat in the NFL. That said, his physical foundation lends him a lot of natural upside, and that upside shined through in a favorable setting.”
The best thing Smith could do at the Senior Bowl was show growth with his physical makeup, and he did just that. He still has a long way to go before he can earn a starting role. Nevertheless, he’s moving in the right direction, and already, he’s succeeded a lot based on traits alone. If the UNI edge rusher can keep adding weight, retain his athleticism, and further refine his hand usage, he could be a massive unearthed gem.
Which teams make sense for Elerson Smith, and in what range?
Despite his strong showing at the Senior Bowl, I think Smith is at best a Round 4 pick. With his tools, there’s a remote chance a team could snag him on the tail end of Day 2. However, more likely than not, he’s a Day 3 pick with a relatively wide range. All it takes is one team to fall in love with his upside. Simultaneously, his unconventional frame and lack of play strength are enough to turn many teams off.
Related | Farabaugh’s 4-round 2021 NFL Mock Draft
Ultimately, I think Elerson Smith is a strong pick anywhere on Day 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft. The UNI edge rusher has a frame that creates questions, but it also gives him some projected versatility. He has the freedom of movement to profile well in a 3-4 outside linebacker role. But if he can add more to his frame, he could be a solid five-technique with inside-outside functionality. Teams like the Colts, Titans, Bills, and Bengals would all be well-served to take a gamble on Smith. He’s a potential low-risk/high-reward player at the right spot.
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