BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Calvin Pryor is projected to be one of the first safeties selected and potentially a first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft, but he might not be the only Louisville safety to hear his name called this year.
While his counterpart made a name for himself through game-changing plays and explosive hits, Hakeem Smith was a more discreetly productive player. He doesn’t get the early-round projections that Pryor does, but the case could be made that Smith, a four-year starter, was the more reliable and consistent of Louisville’s two starting safeties.
Smith, who started 51 consecutive games in his Louisville career, was either a first- or second-team all-conference selection in each of his four collegiate seasons. He recorded 290 total tackles, 26 passes defensed and five forced fumbles.
That consistency of production is what Smith believes makes him marketable to NFL teams.
Smith, who said having a positive attitude is “very important” to his success, told Buffalo Bills Draft during an interview in March that he considers himself to be “an exciting player.”
“I have fun out there,” Smith said. “You’ve got certain guys that will be down or you know get it in their head like they messed up on a play. I’ll be jumping around, getting excited, getting guys going.”
While Smith has no shortage of confidence in his football ability, will NFL teams be as upbeat about his pro potential? His reliable play at Louisville could translate to next-level success, but there are also a number of concerns that scouts must weigh in evaluating him.
Tale of the Tape
Weight: 194 lbs
40-Yard Dash: 4.77 seconds
10-Yard Split: 1.65 seconds
Bench Press: 17 reps
Vertical Jump: 37”
3-Cone Drill: 6.99 seconds
*All measurables from Louisville pro day and courtesy of NFLDraftScout.com.
+ Consistent clean-up tackler as the last line of defense
+ Gets himself into proper positions for coverage and tackling
+ Times up hits on receivers well on potential downfield receptions
+ Fluid footwork and hips
+ Experienced in the center field role
+ Hustles to cover ground, plays through the final whistle
+ Experienced four-year starter
- Sloppy tackler, needs serious work on his tackling form
- Poor speed for a safety
- Not a big-impact player, doesn’t consistently show up in the frame on television
- Overly conservative, lets plays come to him much more than he attacks upfield
With limited access to collegiate “All-22” game film, safeties can be the toughest position to scout. It can be especially difficult with a safety like Smith, who frequently lined up as a deep center-fielder, and therefore is often outside of the frame during game plays on a television broadcast.
That said, when comparing Smith to Pryor and some of the other top safety prospects in this year’s draft class, Smith’s lack of appearance in the frame is noticeable. While he has been a consistent presence on the back end, both in coverage and tackling, he did not make a great number of impact plays.
His consistency has been enabled by his instinctiveness, as he is very good at getting himself into the proper position to make plays on the back end. He isn’t much of a ballhawk, but he is good at making plays in coverage by striking receivers simultaneously as passes come their way.
Smith showed impressive range at Louisville, making plays from sideline to sideline. He has fluid hips to drop back and change directions, and as evidenced by his fast 3-cone drill time, he has impressive short-area quickness.
He might not have enough speed, however, to continue handling deep coverage responsibilities against NFL offenses. With a 40 time that registers slower than most tight ends at the next level, he could get exposed in downfield situations.
Statistics can be deceiving, and in this case, they might make Smith seem like a better player in run support than he is.
He excels as a clean-up tackler on the back end, a role he often filled as the deep safety—and henceforth, the last line of defense on run plays and catch-and-run situations—in Louisville’s secondary. Once again, the key to Smith’s success in that capacity is getting himself in the proper positions to make plays well before the run even comes to him.
Attacking upfield, however, is where Smith often runs into trouble. He isn’t an aggressive playmaker in the box, and when he does come up to make plays against runs, he often does so with flawed form that results in whiffed tackles.
If Smith is going to have sustained success as an NFL safety, he must become a more fundamentally sound tackler. His lack of speed is likely to limit him in deep coverage situations, meaning that Smith will have to make more plays closer to the line of scrimmage to be an impactful part of an NFL defense.
Smith’s experience and football intelligence help his chances of making an NFL roster, but his best chance of sticking around at the next level is to become a key player on special teams.
“A lot of guys don’t like special teams. I love special teams,” Smith said. “Anywhere a team will put me on special teams, I’ll play it. That’s just a big part of the game, special teams. You win special teams, you can win the game.”
If he can become a more consistent tackler, Smith’s desire to contribute to a team in any way could help him carve out a role on kickoff and punt coverage teams and as a backup safety.
Looking Ahead to the Draft and the NFL
Snubbed from an invite to this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, Smith is no lock to be drafted. That said, there seems to be an unusually high demand for safeties in this year’s draft. If the top safety prospects like Pryor all come off the board early, it could push the rest of the class and help solidify Smith’s chances of being a Day 3 selection.
“I feel like it’s a great opportunity,” Smith said of being a safety in this year’s draft. “You look at what teams need, it puts a better feeling in you that, OK, a team needs this, so many teams need this position and I’m going to go out and work extra hard so I can be one of those players picked up.”
Setting his goals high for the next level, Smith said his objective is to “become an impact player for a team,” while he also strives to win a Super Bowl and get chosen for a Pro Bowl.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, Smith said he realizes—in part due to the advice he has received from high school friend and Jacksonville Jaguars guard Will Rackley—that he must consistently be on top of his game to maintain his place on an NFL roster.
“I like being in that type of pressure because it makes me a better player and it just tells me every day, you can’t slack off,” Smith said of the constant potential to be cut from an NFL team.
Nonetheless, Smith said being selected in this year’s draft would be the realization of a dream he has had his whole life.
“It’s just a dream come true, just looking at the role that I went through and all the adversity I faced and I’ve bounced back from it, it just gives me a blessing,” Smith said.
A participant in this year’s East-West Shrine Game, Smith said he thinks his film shows what he can do. That said, he also feels he impressed in his pre-draft workouts this year, including sessions with the New England Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans.
“There’s some things that you can’t see in the film that they [NFL teams] want to see in person,” Smith said. “They had questions about my weight, my strength, my footwork was off or if I had tight hips … I showed them that I’m strong, fast, I’m (fluid) and my feet are quick.”
On Louisville’s Top Prospects
On Day 3 of the draft, Louisville fans will likely turn their attention to Smith, along with some other possible later-round selections like linebacker Preston Brown and wide receiver Damian Copeland. In the first round of the draft, however, Cardinals eyes will be on Teddy Bridgewater, the quarterback being projected everywhere from the No. 1 overall pick to the second round, and on Pryor.
Smith said Bridgewater doesn’t stand out as a vocal leader—which has been one of the criticisms NFL teams have reportedly had regarding the potential franchise signal-caller—but that he “creates something out of nothing” on the field.
“Big situations, he comes in and he’s like, a clutch player,” Smith said. “It could be a 4th down and long, 3rd down and long, 4th quarter situation with like 30 seconds left—he becomes that man and he gets the job done.”
While Smith praised Bridgewater, he also complimented one of his top competitors to be the first quarterback selected in this year’s draft. Asked who the best player he went up against last season was, Smith pointed to UCF quarterback Blake Bortles, who led his team to a 38-35 victory over the Cardinals this past season.
As for his fellow safety, Smith said Pryor’s hard-hitting style of play provided a spark for the Louisville defense.
“The way he was able to deliver big hits, knock a lot of players out … when he does that, that gets a lot of us going,” Smith said. “We love that, and it’s just exciting.”
Altogether, Smith said it helped him prepare for the next level to have the opportunity to play with potential NFL players all around him.
“It makes you a better player,” Smith said. “Watching them, studying them, going against them every day, being part of the team with them, you see things that you can study off of film that could help you … You just become a better player.”