One of the most hotly debated rankings leading up to the 2019 NFL Draft has been the tight end position. While Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant are widely considered to be the two best tight ends in the class in either order, that 3rd spot is a bit all over the place.
While Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. was the favorite for TE3 heading into the NFL Scouting Combine, his lackluster athletic testing has led to an inconsistent ranking among evaluators. It wasn’t only his testing that was slightly below average, as he also measured in a bit undersized. It’s one thing to lack ideal size but make up for it with plus athleticism, but it’s another when a prospect is a bit mediocre across the board.
Here is Irv Smith Jr.’s athletic testing, accompanied by the percentiles among tight end prospects (via Mockdraftable):
Height: 6’2 ⅜ (7th percentile)
Weight: 242 pounds (8th percentile)
Wingspan: 74 ⅞ inches (5th percentile)
Arm Length 31 ½ inches (5th percentile)
40 Yard Dash: 4.63s (83rd percentile)
Vertical: 32 ½ inches (44th percentile)
Broad Jump: 110” (21st percentile)
3-Cone Drill: 7.32s (25th percentile)
Short Shuttle: 4.33s (56th percentile)
Bench Press: 19 reps (40th percentile)
While Smith proved to be fast in a straight line, his size and length limitations are obvious. Additionally, his explosiveness and agility drills were underwhelming for a prospect his size.
The curious part about Smith’s athletic testing was that his film suggested a plus athlete, at least that was my interpretation. Judging him based on his performance on the field, I felt as though Smith would be a borderline top 32 player in the class. His NFL Combine performance made me revisit Smith’s evaluation, to see if any size or athleticism limitations plagued him.
What I found on Smith’s film was a prospect with swift feet and speed for the position, functional lateral mobility, balance and strength in his lower-half. I never felt like he was limited athletically, in fact I found more plays where his athleticism popped than anything else.
The top play that showed this came against LSU, when Smith was matched up with safety Grant Delpit. For those of you who don’t know about Delpit, he was a consensus all-american last season. With over 70 tackles, 5 interceptions and 5 sacks, he’s a favorite to go top 10 in the NFL Draft in 2020. On the rep, Delpit is playing man coverage with outside leverage, attempting to funnel Smith inside towards the free safety.
Smith uses his lateral agility to still get outside of Delpit, then an explosive vertical cut to separate. Notice how Smith has his eyes back to the quarterback to track the ball, while Delpit is in a full sprint trailing behind him. Despite this, Delpit still isn’t closing on Smith from behind. That takes wheels to do for a tight end, especially against a safety as athletic as Delpit.
Before Irv Smith Jr. was at Alabama, their tight end position got a makeover because of the skill set of O.J. Howard. While not identical prospects, something that sticks out about Smith is his natural ability as a ball carrier, which is reminiscent of Howard. For that reason, Smith fit naturally into his unique role for a tight end.
Smith has quick feet in the open field to get the edge, but what really sticks out is his contact balance. He’s stout with his lower body strength and can take on multiple tacklers at once.
While on these plays it’s easy to see that Smith isn’t limited athletically, if his underwhelming size and length would come back to bite him, it would be as a run blocker. Smith has a lot of experience playing in-line, which bodes well for how NFL teams like to use their tight ends. However, with short arms at a lighter weight, it’s a reasonable question to ask if he’ll be a liability as a blocker.
In college, Smith was a plus run blocker who won with a sound base and motor. But can he hold up against bigger and more athletic competition?
Scouting Smith’s game against Clemson in the national championship game, there weren’t any plays that stuck out with Smith being dragged down by his size or weight. His lower body and core strength allows him to hold his ground, even against defensive ends with outstanding power such as Clelin Ferrell.
Athletic testing is an important measuring stick when defining the ceiling of prospects. However, it can be misleading when used as a sole evaluation method. Based on Smith’s film, he won’t be limited due to his below average athletic testing.
Additionally, Smith is just 20 years of age. It’s reasonable to expect that he levels off around a 250 pound playing weight. While that doesn’t affect his height or lack of length, his power should be just fine in the NFL. Smith’s evaluation is one of those cases where his testing just doesn’t tell the full story of his athleticism.