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Film Room: Should the Colts pursue Za’Darius Smith in Free Agency?

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Smith enters free agency after a career year for the Ravens.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Indianapolis Colts shocked a majority of the football world after the team was projected to finish with one of the worst records in the NFL at the start of the season. Instead, after a 1-5 start, the team rebounded to win 9 of their final 10 games and reach the playoffs. After losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, how can the Colts get better?

The next edition to this Film Room series will be on talented Ravens’ pass rusher Za’Darius Smith. We’ll be looking at what he could possibly bring to the Colts and why I’d be a bit hesitant to sign him to a big deal this offseason.


Background

College:

Kentucky

Size:

6’4” 274 pounds with 32 5/8” arms

Measureables:

40 Time: 4.83 / Bench Press: 23 Reps / Vertical Jump: 29 inches / Broad Jump: 113 inches / 3-Cone: 7.42 seconds

Career Stats (NFL):

119 total tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, 52 QB hits, 18.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles in four years as a starter


Strengths

Interior Pass Rush

Smith offers a ton of scheme versatility in terms of where he can rush the passer in a 4-3 defense. Although he is more of a fit on the end, his best pass rushing reps came from the interior for the Ravens this past season. He finished the year with a career best 8.5 sacks. He wins with a wicked combination of strength and quick hands.

Here, he (#90) is lined up over the right guard for the Titans. He gets a good jump and punches the guard square in the chest with heavy hands. He is able to drive the guard into Marcus Mariota’s lap and discard him as he nears the quarterback. Smith then finishes the rep by getting past the lineman and bringing down Mariota for the sack.

Another rep against the Titans, Smith is lined up over the left guard. His first step and leverage are excellent and it is what leads to the initial penetration up the middle. By keeping his hands inside, he is able to knock the guard off balance and gain an opening through the line. He relentlessly flies past the guard and finishes the play with a forced fumble sack of Mariota.

This clip shows his versatility and strength on full display. He is lined up over top of the center and is rushing right up the middle on this blitz play. He stunts with the other interior rusher and gets into a one-on-one situation with the center. With strong hands and great leverage, Smith is able to discard the block from the center by tossing him to the ground and getting to the backfield. He finishes the play by sacking Josh Allen.


Run Defense

Frank Reich and the defensive coaching staff showed last season that run defense is important for his defensive linemen. It is the biggest reason why Al-Quadin Muhammad and Tyquan Lewis saw so much more playing time than Kemoko Turay down the stretch. Luckily, Smith is an excellent run defender. He sets a strong edge on the outside and crashes down the backside excellently when left unblocked on the end.

Here, Smith is the stand up linebacker on the left side of the screen. The play is a designed run to the right and he reads this from the snap. He begins to crash hard down the line of scrimmage. He uses quick hands to discard the block from left tackle Taylor Lewan and is able to meet the running back in the hole for a short gain on the play.

Smith also does an excellent job of setting a strong edge. Here, he is on the right side of the line getting blocked by the Chargers tight end. He gets his hands inside and keeps his head up while engaged. As soon as running back Melvin Gordon bursts through the line, Smith is able to stack and shed his blocker and make the tackle for a short gain. Excellent control of the block and ability to shed it for the tackle.


Negatives

Rushing from the outside

One of the bigger flaws I saw with Smith was that his pass rushing from the outside was just not as effective as his interior rushes. On the end, he came off the line high and was too hesitant with what he wanted to do. It is likely the main reason why the Ravens elected to move him inside on pass rush downs a lot this season.

This first rep has Smith lined up on the left side of the line of scrimmage. He comes off the line a bit high and is pretty late closing the gap between himself and the right tackle. He attempts to go for the bull rush but he really isn’t able to get much of a push when doing that. He is slow to counter and only after the pass is thrown does he attempt a spin. Compare this to his interior pass rushes and it is a different story.

Next rep is the same deal but just on the other side of the line. He pops off the line very high and doesn’t really close the gap to the quarterback until the ball is almost thrown. Once he engages the tackle, he doesn’t really have a plan as he is mostly swinging his arms around without really setting up a move. I think he is a decent athlete overall but his limitations do show up when he is rushing from the outside.


Tackling Issues

The only other major flaw I noticed on his film was that he did struggle at times lining up his targets and making secure tackles. For his career, he has 14 missed tackles compared to his 119 career tackles according to PFF. He almost has more missed tackles than sacks in his career. Even when he is making tackles, he allows too many yards after contact for a player his size. He needs to clean this area up going forward.

On this play, Smith gets excellent pressure up the gut and reaches the running back as he gets the carry. He shows off his excellent burst and quickness off of the line and nearly makes an incredible play. He just misses this tackle in the backfield, which leads to a potential 5 yard loss turning into a 10 yard gain.

This next clip is likely one that Smith would like to never see again. He initially rushes inside but backs off once he is double teamed. He drops into a QB spy and races out with the quarterback as he leaves the pocket. He gets a clean shot on Nathan Peterman but gets stiff armed to the ground before he can make the tackle. Obviously this isn’t a huge deal as Peterman didn’t gain much yardage after the missed tackle but it again shows a problem that is consistent on his tape.


Conclusion

Za’Darius Smith is a very aggressive, talented defensive lineman who had a career year for the Ravens last season. He is a versatile player who had his most success rushing from the interior. He is a solid run defender and with his pass rush ability, he should get a good deal this offseason.

Should the Colts be that team that gives it to him though? I would say, no. Chris Ballard has mentioned the need to get more pressure on the edge and Smith is more of an interior rusher. He is similar to Denico Autry.

With the money that Smith is going to command on the open market, I’d likely want to stay out of that bidding war. With other defensive end type players set to hit free agency such as Trey Flowers or Preston Smith, I’d rather the Colts go after them. They offer more athletic upside to be dominant on the edge.