Kendall Smith NFL Draft Scouting Report
SAF, Illinois Fighting Illini
Illinois safety Kendall Smith projects as a traditional free safety in the NFL. He has frequently played deeper portions of the field in coverage after nearly a full career of special teams plays—he finally broke out as a starter in 2022 after the departure of Kerby Joseph in 2021 for the 2022 NFL Draft. Smith was a productive member of the Illini secondary and figures to be someone who is, at minimum, a special teams contributor in the kicking game and potentially a developmental player in a defense that operates largely in middle-of-the-field closed coverages.
Originally a 3-star recruit, Smith committed to Illinois out of Bolingbrook High School in Bolingbrook, IL. Smith was a member of the class of 2017 and when he initially committed to the Illini, he was a wide receiver. Smith played the full season as a true freshman in 2017 as a wide receiver for the Illini before transitioning to safety ahead of the 2018 college football season and eventually would redshirt in 2019. He did not start until 2022 and was named Honorable Mention All-Big-Ten.
Smith is a late bloomer at the safety position who has been given several seasons to marinate and develop within the Illini program. He transitioned to free safety from wide receiver but does indeed look like a player who is having the light come on. His prospects as a pro player should be considered developmental but his ball skills as a former wide receiver are obvious and he’s made several nice plays from the high post position as a deep middle defender for the Illini in 2022, including a big-time interception on an inside fade from the far hash against Minnesota. The angles to react to the ball in the air are his best quality and man-free teams will certainly be drawn to his potential.
Ball production found him quickly in 2022 and that nose for the ball will be a selling point for any team that appears interested in bringing Smith into their ranks this upcoming spring. Smith appears to have good mobility throughout his frame, allowing him to lengthen himself at the catch point, but more importantly, also offers dynamic change of direction when tasked with playing deep middle as a means of challenging vertical routes outside the hashes. He is a multi-year special teams contributor so his floor for a potential roster spot is elevated if he thrives in his new environment in this regard. He’s got the size to be a sturdy player in the kicking game and as a tackler as well and he pairs that stature with sufficient acceleration to close down in pursuit in the open field.
While his breakout campaign is promising, Smith was pinned down in the Illinois depth chart by Joseph last season, so our sample size of his play is minimal at the free safety position—which makes him something of a high-risk and high-variance proposition, especially as an older prospect who must play in space. The big question will be whether or not his physical prime is past by the time he hits his mental peak as a safety—he will be 24 years old by the time he takes his first NFL snap. There’s also an acknowledgment here of the trends of the league. The number of teams that play middle of the field closed and true Cover 1 with frequency is diminished amid the explosive passing games across the NFL, which leaves the free safety position as not quite the same romanticized position that it once was. That is more of a secondary piece of his valuation, though. This is a player who needs more reps as a player to better develop a feel for his spacing and anticipation of route combinations.
Expectations for Smith? It’s interesting. On one hand, he feels like a high-floor pick on day three thanks to his special teams work and how that’s developed his open-field tackling efforts and the ability to claim a roster spot. But for all the questions of his age, it is also worth acknowledging that you may get developmental upside. I’d bet on Smith on day three to be a special teams contributor and try to develop him into a coverage player who could challenge to take significant snaps someday.
Top Reasons to Buy In:
- Plays harder to find position as a high-post man-free safety
- Good ball skills and tracking ability; logged five interceptions in 2022
- Special teams background
- Potential developmental upside as a former wide receiver
Top Reasons For Concern:
- One-year starter in spite of five-season career with the Illini
- Speed and range are sufficient but not hallmark skills to play high-post safety
- 24-year-old rookie with low snap volume in live game action
Weight: 205 lbs
Arm Length: TBD
Hand Size: TBD
Athletic Testing (TBD):
40-yard Dash: TBD
Vertical Jump: TBD
Broad Jump: TBD
Bench Reps: TBD
Ideal Role: Developmental free safety and special teams coverage player
Scheme Fit: Middle-of-the-field-closed heavy systems
Prospect Comparison: Kenny Robinson (2020 NFL Draft)
TDN Consensus Grade: 71.00/100 (Fifth-Round Value)
- Crabbs Grade: 71.00/100
Written By: Kyle Crabbs
Exposures: Wyoming (2022), Wisconsin (2022), Minnesota (2022), Michigan (2022)
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