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2018 NFL Draft Prospect vs Prospect: Roquan Smith and Rashaan Evans

Which SEC linebacker do you prefer?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Compared to last year, the 2018 off-ball linebacker class is looking pretty strong at the top.

Last April, three talented second level defenders ended up going in the first round in Haason Reddick, Jarad Davis and Reuben Foster in that order. This year, the magic number maybe four, and it can be argued that all three of the four have higher upside than the 2017 group.

As the dust is beginning to settle, it appears that Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds is expected to be the first linebacker to come off the board somewhere in the top third of the first round. After that, it’s anyone’s guess who’s next.

Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, who I broke down a couple weeks ago, has seen the biggest rise of the group and is now expected to be selected in the middle of the first round.

Both Edmunds and Vander Esch bring tremendous production, size and athleticism that make them prototypes at the position, but they have legitimate blemishes on film and aren’t quite regarded as pro-ready players. This is where the other two projected first-round linebackers, Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Rashaan Evans, have the upper hand.

In a special football season for the Southeastern Conference, the most complete Georgia Bulldogs team in recent memory finished the regular season at 12-1 and conference champions.

On a defense that is likely to have more than a handful of defenders drafted early, Smith was their unquestioned leader and catalyst at middle linebacker. In both college football playoff games, he put his rare skill set on display for the whole nation to see, and it was nothing different than what he was doing all season for Kirby Smart’s defense.

Unfortunately for Georgia, while they were the regular season kings of the SEC, it was Evans and Alabama who got the last laugh in the national championship. Like they always do, Nick Saban seamlessly replaced Foster with Evans in the middle of his multiple defense, and Evans set the tone and allowed others around him to feast. S

o where do these two differ and how are they alike?

Let’s go down the list.


We did not receive a full athletic profile for Smith, but knowing how he plays on the field, it would be more of a confirmation than anything. Smith was regularly the quickest player on the field and could get to the numbers in a literal instant.

At the combine, we got to see him run a 4.51 40 yard dash after weighing in at 236 pounds, which was about 10 pounds more than his playing weight. What was even more impressive was that he accomplished that time despite injury his hamstring in the middle of his run. He subsequently sat out for the jumps and shuttles in Indianapolis, but he did do the jumps at Georgia’s pro day.

Smith and Evans Athletic Profiles

Player Roquan Smith Rashaan Evans
Player Roquan Smith Rashaan Evans
Height 6007 6017
Weight 236 232
Arm Length 32 32 1/4
Hand Size 10 10
40 Yard Dash 4.51 DNP
Vertical Jump 33 1/2 30
Broad Jump 117 116
Short Shuttle DNP 4.36
3-Cone Drill DNP 6.95

Evans declined to run the 40 yard dash at the combine and at Alabama’s pro day. The only thing that you should take away from that is no 40 time is better than a bad 40 time.

Both ended up with slightly similar jumps, which are just about average but are slightly underwhelming relative to their size.

Age and Production

This is where Smith makes his mark as one of the safer prospects in this entire class. As a true Junior at 20 years old, Smith accounted for 16.31% of Georgia’s solo tackles. Though some may not want to believe it, the best linebackers of the last 30 years all had at least one season in college where they achieved similar solo tackle production relative to how many solo tackles the defense as a whole recorded.

Not only was Smith insanely productive in the one area that matters more than anything else for linebackers, but he was also extremely young while doing it. For comparison’s sake, Luke Kuechly accounted for 22.57% of Boston College’s solo tackles as a 20 year old in his final year as a true Junior.

We shouldn’t ignore Smith’s 20 and a half tackles made behind the line of scrimmage though. Smith lead the Bulldogs defense in both tackles for loss (14) and sacks (6.5), as he was just as effective playing downhill as he was playing laterally.

Backfield tackles is where Evans will stand proudly on his stat sheet, he was very similar to Smith with 13 tackles for loss and 6 sacks, but he finished his four year career at Alabama with one less solo tackle than Smith had last year. His best season in solo tackle market share was in 2016 when he accounted for 5.76% of the Crimson Tide’s, and he only started two games that year.

As a full-time starter in 2017, his solo tackle market share dropped to 4.27%, 12% less than Smith’s mark on a defense that was just as talented. Evans at least is also on the younger side, having turned 21 back in November, but the lack of production is a big question mark for Evans.

Film Traits

Against top level competition in 2017, both Smith and Evans proved they have many more positives than negatives on the field. Their top strengths, however, are not the same.

Smith’s game is tailor made to play sideline to sideline, he’s essentially genetically coded for the way the game is evolving. Whenever an offense would try to get outside the numbers whether on the ground or in the air, Smith would get from the middle of the field to the ball in the blink of an eye.

Second level blockers could never get a finger on him and he’d always beat the ball carrier to the spot and make the stop before someone else could. He’s a true see ball, get ball defender in space and the best in this class at scraping over the top to make a play.

That sideline to sideline ability obviously translates in clicking and closing extremely well. The difference between Smith and other linebackers is his he can accelerate so quickly that if he has to slightly change his angle to the ball, he doesn’t lose any speed in the process. Like a guided missile, nothing escapes Smith in his top-tier range.

In coverage, Smith can shut down underneath routes in zone, and latch onto deep routes in an instant. His speed and hip flexion makes him great for mirroring in breaks and he has pretty good ball skills to go with his spatial awareness.

On the third clip, 99% of linebackers would’ve been burned alive against that wheel route if they played it like Smith. Initially, he starts attacking the line of scrimmage thinking the back is just running a flat.

As soon as he realizes he’s going down the sideline, he opens his hips and turns on the boosters. He’s able to run in the back’s hip pocket and is in position to make a play on the ball. Baker Mayfield barely overthrows this ball and he would’ve had the back wide open if Smith wasn’t a legit 4.4 sprinter.

Smith’s aforementioned light-playing weight did get him trouble when teams attacked the gut of Georgia’s defense and got past the first level. Smith is not the kind of linebacker to take on blocks with power, and even when he had the quickness to evade guards and centers climbing towards him, he was too slow to react and got washed out of plays.

This is where Smith and Evans games’ deviate dramatically.

Evans plays like a damn battering ram when taking on blocks. He’ll leverage himself perfectly and explode on an unexpecting lineman and sometimes gain ground in his run fit. Evans plays with great physicality for his size and is the yang to Smith’s yin in this aspect of the game.

To pile on this point, if Smith is the prodigy going east and west, Evans claims that title going north and south. If he’s not taking on blocks, he’s juking them and getting downhill fast and aggressively. This was something I saw a lot from Reuben Foster last year and that skill translated very will in San Francisco last season. Evans is the same kind of player.

What Evans lacked in solo tackle production, he supplemented in as a pass rusher off the edge and sugaring the A-gap. His process on the edge was more refined at times than some full-time edge defenders, he’s an explosive pass rusher who covers a lot of ground in the backfield in very little time.

Often times if he was asked to pin his ears back and the play was broken, he was always around the ball by the blow of the whistle. Effort is certainly not an issue with him.

I don’t think Evans’s athleticism is a big issue, but he’s not at Smith’s level in change of direction and top speed. If he didn’t take the perfect angle, ball carriers could outrun him to the sideline and his tackle radius decreased accordingly. He’s a much better athlete, at least on tape, exploding downhill than in space, and that’s fine as long as you surround him great force players to keep things contained.

How you personally rank these two head to head is entirely dependent on what your team lacks personnel-wise, and how comfortable you are with passing on potential Pro Bowl players for starters. If you combine the strengths of Smith and Evans, you probably have a top 5 player and the best linebacker to enter the NFL since Luke Kuechly.

But these two are noticeably different talents. With Smith, you’re getting a clear three down player that can be an integral part of defending an offense that likes to spread things out attack horizontally, and has the athleticism, age and production indicative of an multiple All-Pro player. The only requirement you must have is capable a-gap defenders up front who can keep him clean up the middle. With that, Smith can become a better Deion Jones and become a regular pro bowler for the next decade.

Evans doesn’t have the production upside or sideline to sideline speed that Smith has, but still looks the part of a starting MIKE that will make way more impact plays than negative plays in run defense. To me, that’s a day 2 player who you can count on in reaching his floor, but there very well may be a team in the bottom of the first-round who won’t mess around and take Evans to fill out their linebacking corps. Is that team the Bengals? I don’t think so.

Where Smith ends up going in the draft is up for debate, but it’s safe to say he’s not making it out of the top 20 to the Bengals at the 21st overall pick. If by some unlikely chance he doe, the Bengals don’t seem to value linebackers to the point where they’d target one in the first round. But a clear first round talent like Smith would put that philosophy to the test.