Heading into the 2015 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills will be looking to bolster the offensive side of the ball, but they’ll also need to acquire some role players that fit Rex Ryan’s hybrid defensive scheme, particularly in the front seven. At the University of Kentucky, defensive end Za’Darius Smith was overshadowed by his teammate Alvin “Bud” Dupree, a projected first-round draft pick, but he’s an intriguing prospect that has desirable traits worthy of a mid-round selection in the upcoming draft.
Smith, who stands 6’4” and weighs 275-pounds only began playing football in his senior year of high school, so he’s still very much a work in progress. He played just two seasons with the Wildcats, recording 119 tackles and 10.5 sacks after transferring from Junior College, where he was ranked as the No. 1 strong-side defensive end and the No. 10 overall transfer prospect.
Za’Darius Smith looks the part of a prototypical left defensive end and his massive, long frame stands out on tape upon first glance. At the combine, Smith posted a 4.83-second 40-yard dash (9th among 55 DL), which is impressive for his size, but his 1.77-second 10-yard split, 29” vertical leap, 9’6” broad jump match up with the lack of explosiveness to his game. He’s slow getting off the ball at times, and there’s a stiffness to his game that prevents him from making as big an impact as you’d like from an edge rusher.
But what Smith lacks in burst and quickness is compensated for with strength and power that shows up when he’s bull-rushing opposing linemen. In the following clip, that power is put on display as Smith uses his long arms to gain leverage against the tackle, before tossing him aside and nearly making the sack.
While Za’Darius Smith isn’t overly explosive or athletic for a defensive end, he’s still able to disrupt opposing quarterbacks by powering his way into the backfield. For such a raw, inexperienced player, he has a great understanding of how to use his length and hands to gain an advantage over his opponents.
In the following play, Smith shows off a nifty rip move from the three-technique defensive tackle position, engaging the lineman off the snap, before quickly ripping down his arms and dipping around him to force a quick pass.
From a wider alignment, Smith flashed the ability to bend the corner and make the sack, a trait that not every pass rusher has in their arsenal. He gets off the ball and uses his inside arm to create distance between himself and the tackle, before bending his hips and turning it back inside to bring down the Miami (Ohio) quarterback.
Smith’s lack of experience really shows up when defending the run, as he struggles to read his keys quickly and gets too high out of his stance. This often results in linemen getting their hands inside Smith’s pads immediately, taking him out of the play.
When he’s able to get off the ball quickly, Smith is capable of blowing up plays in the backfield. In the following play against Mississippi State, Kentucky is in a nickel defense and Smith lines up at defensive tackle. Running the read-option, the Bulldogs’ offensive line blocks down to the right but Smith is quick enough to get skinny and penetrate the gap between the left tackle and guard and brings down the running back for a loss.
One concerning aspect of Smith’s game is the inconsistent effort he gives on a given play. He doesn’t always play to the whistle and will pull up off of blocks when plays go to the opposite side of the field. His up-and-down motor was exposed several times while watching him, particularly on the following play. In the first half of the clip, Smith is engaged with the lineman on a run to his side of the field. As he gets closer to the sideline, Smith stands up and looks around, assuming the play is over. Mississippi State’s running back picks up a chunk of yards that could’ve been prevented had Smith kept working through the play.
On the second portion of the clip, Smith bursts through the offensive line on a play that the Bulldogs are running to the right of the formation. Seeing that the play has passed him, Smith pulls up and watches the play happen, despite being within a few yards of potentially making the tackle.
How He Fits The Bills
Za’Darius Smith has an attractive combination of size, strength, power and quickness that will likely get him selected in the middle rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft. His lack of explosiveness makes him a less-than-ideal option as a traditional edge rusher, but at 275 pounds he’s a little light to play on the interior defensive line. Rex Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 scheme values versatility, length and disruption, which Smith definitely brings to the table.
In a 3-4 defense, Smith has the skill set necessary to play either the five-technique end role, where his long arms and strong frame project well to, or possibly at the rush outside linebacker position, where his quickness and flexibility would allow him to set the edge and rush the passer.
Projection: 4th Round
Player Comparison: Lamarr Houston