The 2013 off-season has certainly been good to Malcolm Smith. Leroy Hill is out, no free agent WLBs were signed, and none of Seattle's eleven draft picks were used on the position either. I'm excited for him. Korey Toomer and Mike Morgan are the only returning Seahawks likely to challenge Smith for the starting job and both players have mostly been featured at SLB. John Lotulelei and Craig Wilkins were signed as UDFAs this year but the likelihood of them starting week one seems remote. Allen Bradford is another darkhorse candidate.
Malcolm Smith is entering his third season and is the only Seahawk with professional experience playing WLB. He's mostly played special teams in his first two seasons. He rotated through at WLB in 2011 and started three games for an injured Leroy Hill in 2012, playing most of the second Niners game as well.
Smith has some really impressive measurables, despite playing a bit undersized at around 6-0 230. At his pro day coming out of college he ran a 4.45 40 time, benched 225 lbs 28 times, and registered a 39" vertical. This is what former NFL scout Dave Razzano had to say about Smith back before he was drafted in 2011.
The active and smart linebacker was not invited to the combine this season. Watch the USC tape and he is in/out of the lineup due to roster depth but is easy to spot when he plays. Excellent speed and play demeanor. Prototype 4-3 "will" backer.
After going back and watching Smith's play in 2012, Razzano's analysis still rings true today. His speed really pops of screen. He's probably one of the quickest linebackers you'll ever watch. I remember following him at training camp last year and being absolutely floored by how fast his feet were in drills. Combine that spectacular speed/quickness with his overall solid awareness and Smith will make a lot of plays in space.
Smith's speed is especially apparent on plays threatening the edge. Guards pulling to the second level to head-off pursuit rarely lay a hand on Smith. The effort below is almost comical. The RG doesn't even come close to blocking him. With Tavon Austin and Colin Kaepernick around, that range will be mighty helpful within the division.
A surprising revelation I had from my film analysis was how active Smith can be between the tackles. If Madden had a 'strafe speed' attribute then Smith would warrant at least a 95. The guy bounces around like a jackrabbit. He has a real knack for reading the play and hopping over to the gap which the RB intends to hit.
Unfortunately, the play above also demonstrates Smith's greatest limiting factor - tackling. He's not bad, so to speak. I would describe him as efficient. Which probably makes him one of the league's weaker tackling linebackers. He has some pop but his short arms prevent him from consistently wrapping up.
I was worried that his nature as more of a finesse tackler would carry over to the way he takes on blockers. I was relieved to find that this isn't the case. He can't get off blocks very well with his small stature and short arms. But he really attacks the line of scrimmage, often clogging up running lanes and making the tackle possible for others. Both the Bears and the Cardinals tried to run at Smith and both teams met more resistance than I think they anticipated.
Smith leaves a lot to be desired as a tackler, but still contributes a lot of positive play in both run support and pass coverage. He's a cog. Even if Smith really steps up, wins the job, and plays well this season, I still think his ceiling is as a good backup who can start when called upon. Maybe we can view him as a younger, linebacker version of Paul McQuistan. Steady, a solid contributor, a good guy to have around, but ultimately a player at a position at which the Seahawks could seek an upgrade.
I'm guessing the Antoine Winfield signing helped Carroll and company feel comfortable rolling with (probably) Smith at WLB this season. As Razzano alluded to, Smith has never served as a three-down LB. With Winfield demanding snaps as a strong-tackling slot corner, whoever starts at WLB will likely to have some snaps taken from him. That works perfectly with Smith.
In any case, I'm excited for Malcolm Smith to get his shot. He has the talent to force a reconsideration of the opinion I just stated. Can he put it together? Here's his USC highlights, just for the hell of it.