Can Mississippi State DE Preston Smith Be NFL's Next Justin Tuck?

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2015

Mississippi State defensive lineman Preston Smith (91) readies for a tackle against UAB in the second half of an NCAA college football game at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss., Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. Mississippi State won 47-34. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Every once in a while, the draft pops out a unique player whose skills are valued at the next level, but because of the lack of the mold, he's not for everyone. One of those molds is an interior pass-rusher. I'm not talking about a 3-technique defensive tackle like a Gerald McCoy, but a base edge player who puts his hand in the dirt between the guards on nickel and dime reps.

Usually, they are much better in that role than playing in a base defense, so they only see third-down reps. Their value isn't dissimilar to slot cornerbacks a few years ago, before they became a staple of defenses when offenses almost across the board went into 11 personnel.

The two most famous cases of premier interior pass-rushers in recent memory are Justin Tuck, who made two Pro Bowl teams after his selection with the 74th overall pick in 2005, and Michael Bennett, who went undrafted in 2009 and didn't really break out until 2012. Tuck, too, took some time before he saw heavy reps, netting 10 sacks in his third year in the league, still coming off the bench.

Two other names that can be lumped along with Tuck and Bennett are Scott Crichton and Malik Jackson. Crichton was a third-round selection last season but only made two tackles during his rookie year, essentially redshirting. Jackson was a fifth-round pick in 2012, and despite nine sacks over the last two seasons, he's still mostly coming off the bench, too.

In the 2015 draft class, the go-to guy when looking for an interior pass-rusher with inside pressure potential is Preston Smith, a 6'5", 271-pound defensive end who played in college for Mississippi State. The difference between Smith and the rest of the interior pass-rushers is that he's ready to play a base defensive end role from the jump. Because of that, he should go higher than the third-round peak that seems to hold down inside-pressure creators. Much higher.

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Smith isn't limited like the others were coming out. The reason they were good inside is because they could win in the "big game." By that, I mean generating separation with arm length against guards and centers, who typically have shorter arms than the bookends on the outside. If they didn't have the speed to win outside, teams would just put "big game" technicians inside in an attempt to narrow the distance between them and the quarterback.

Smith, though, has the closing speed that can keep him on the edge on first and second downs, on top of the tools to win in the "big game." His arms are 34" long, the same length as J.J. Watt's, the all-world pass-rusher who is destroying the league with size and burst. Smith also has hands that rank in the top five percent at the position, according to Mock Draftable.

Those measurements translate to the field, where Smith is consistently pinning offensive linemen back with one arm after initially nailing them with his heavy hands. For his comparisons on Mock Draftable, Robert Quinn and Ziggy Ansah are listed. Quinn led the NFL in sacks in 2013, and Ansah was the fifth overall selection after that season. Just by looking at his frame and workout numbers, there's potential for him to be special.

As a pass-rusher, he's the definition of strong early in a down, countering his punch with either a cross chop, hand swat, one-arm pin or a swim inside. On top of that, if he lines up wide, he can bend the edge, a rare trait that allows pass-rushers to bet on their athleticism to beat tackles, who typically are heavier and slower.

Justis Mosqueda @JuMosq

I was told Preston Smith couldn't bend the edge. http://t.co/nG9GAO1IeP

Naturally dropping himself and running at an angle with amazing balance, he limits the surface area of where a tackle can punch him, which almost always has to be from a downward angle. From there, if he continues to churn his feet, which he does, then he's allowed to "run the arch" to get to the quarterback. If a player is athletic enough and has the technique to get that move down, all you can do is slow him down. There's really no hope in shutting him down.

The play above and below are against Cedric Ogbuehi, who some were projecting as a top-10 selection before he tore his ACL, plummeting his draft stock. The Texas A&M left tackle, whose biggest plus was athleticism, couldn't match him as an athlete in one-on-one situations.

Justis Mosqueda @JuMosq

Preston bending again. http://t.co/tpSZrHPvgn

As an interior player, he's quicker than nearly anyone he faced in college. Last season, I was a big fan of Crichton for the same reason. Crichton went head-to-head with Hroniss Grasu, Oregon's center who had an All-American year. Crichton, lining up as a nose tackle instead of his typical 4-3 defensive end role, was able to beat Grasu consistently, proving to many that he had NFL potential in the role.

The jury is still out on Crichton, who is buried in the depth chart in Minnesota, but Smith did the same against SEC centers and guards on a week-to-week basis. Beating them off the snap with his explosive power, he can run right through an A- or B-gap by just ripping an interior lineman when they try to initiate contact. It's not going to come as easy at the next level, but once again he knows how to limit his surface area, which is important for an explosive 6'5", 271-pounder.

Justis Mosqueda @JuMosq

Burst off the LOS, inside hand, and rip when you pass to put the guy behind. Smith's interior game is consistent. http://t.co/qmhDsj8rJQ

Smith may like his current playing weight, but he's at a bit of a crossroads. He's heavy as a defensive end, and that can limit him as a weak-side edge-rusher. He's not going to be the type of guy who runs down the back of a carry at the next level at his current size. He was a weak-side defender in college, but he's probably a strong-side player in the NFL because of his power and sound assignment play in the ground game.

Overall, Smith has the highest potential of an interior pass-rusher in some time. It wouldn't surprise me if he were a staple of championship teams, like Tuck and Bennett have been. He's great inside and does enough outside where you can see him playing all the reps on a drive, giving him tremendous value early on in his career, which you can't say many in his mold have been.

He is interesting as a projection, though. He can either lose some of that weight and become an all-time defensive end, or he can continue to grow and be featured more as an interior player. If I were a team like the Oakland Raiders, with an aging Tuck, I would have Smith lose about five pounds, quickening him up just a little, and replace Tuck's reps with Smith's down the line.

Play The Draft currently lists Smith as an over/under selection at 47.5, between the 15th and 16th picks in the second round. I wouldn't be shocked if he were taken in the late first round or very early second round, though. The ability to get after a quarterback is the best trait you can have on defense, and Smith has multiple ways to get it done from multiple spots.

Other evaluators agree, like Rotoworld's Josh Norris, who ranks Smith as the 13th overall player on his big board and also makes the Tuck comparison:

13. DL/EDGE Preston Smith, Miss State

NFL Comparison: On the Malik Jackson, Justin Tuck spectrum

Where He Wins: Converts speed to power very well when on the outside/edge, and uses quickness with strength when moved inside. Many teams could benefit from utilizing an outside to inside disruptor. Gives me the warm and fuzzy feeling Malik Jackson did.

Smith isn't involved in the majority of the first-round mocks you'll see on the Internet, but don't be surprised or disappointed if he lands with your team in the first 32 picks on April 30. He's a player who you're going to need a plan for, but he's a definitive talent if you place him in the right spots.


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