Back on December 19th, Northern Illinois Huskies defensive end Sutton Smith announced that he will forego his final season at NIU to enter the 2019 NFL Draft. Smith came out of nowhere to become the face of the Huskies defense during the 2017 season as a redshirt sophomore after a somewhat quiet 2016 season in which he did get some playing time. Originally recruited by head coach Rod Carey as a running back, the native of St. Charles, Missouri switched to defense due to the large amount of running backs ahead of him on the roster; hence the reason why he redshirted as a freshman. Since then he’s become one of college football’s most consistent pass rushers. And he brought newfound attention to the Huskies defense as NIU has usually been known for offensive talent.
Yesterday I informed my coaches and teammates I will forego my RS SR season. I’m sincerely grateful to NIU, the entire coaching staff & my teammates for their support. It truly means a lot. To the Huskie Nation – THANK YOU! I'm excited to represent NIU in my next chapter. pic.twitter.com/5dhVMZuC9Z
— Sutton Smith (@suttonsmith5) December 19, 2018
The most recent defensive prospect from NIU to make waves in the NFL is current San Francisco 49ers safety Jimmie Ward, who was selected 30th overall in the 2014 draft. Smith, however, has drawn NFL scouts to his games as he keeps showing up in Huskies highlight reels. Replacing him in DeKalb won’t be easy. But while it’s exciting to see another local talent possibly have his name called next spring, there are always pros and cons about turning pro especially when you have another year of college eligibility to use. So here are the pros and cons of Smith declaring for the 2019 draft….
During his time at NIU Sutton Smith has racked up 30 sacks (double-digit sacks in each of the last two seasons), 140 total tackles (double digit tackles each year), six forced fumbles, and four pass deflections. He also led the nation in tackles for loss (29.5) and quarterback pressures (73) in 2017. He also broke many school records as well. At times opposing teams either had to double-team block Smith, or had to run plays away from Smith in order to keep him from disrupting plays. He was especially effective in the offensive-minded Mid-American Conference.
Smith has been named to several All-American lists including Associated Press, The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, Walter Camp, and USA Today among others. He was also a two-time Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year (2017 and 2018), a two-time First-team All-MAC selection (2017 and 2018), and was a finalist for several other awards including the Ted Hendricks Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, and he was the first Huskie since LeShon Johnson in 1993 to be named a Consensus All-American.
Smith has shown the ability to get past blockers with both speed and power from both two and three-point stances. He flies to the football on every play, he can play the run in addition to rushing the passer, and he has the durability factor on his side he’s rarely been injured. He’s also a gym rat as he spends plenty of time in the weight room. Sutton Smith is very diligent about his conditioning which will be key in the professional ranks.
Where he projects-
Based on his production alone, Smith could easily be picked within the first two rounds of the draft. I say he won’t fall any further than the third round. While Sutton Smith did play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme for Northern Illinois, his size and body type project him as more of an outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment in the NFL. And when you consider that 12 of the NFL’s 32 teams run this coverage as their base defense (with another five teams running a hybrid mixture of both schemes), it shouldn’t be too difficult for him to find an NFL home.
Leaving the last year of eligibility behind-
While Smith is sure to draw considerable interest in the draft, I can’t help but wonder how much more he could raise his profile by coming back for another year. Another double-digit year in the sack and tackle department could make him a sure fire first round pick. Next year’s NIU non-conference schedule includes Utah, Nebraska, and Vanderbilt. Those are games against three Power 5 schools that will most likely be nationally televised and would give Sutton Smith another round of exposure to a national audience.
Concerns about his size-
Smith is currently listed at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds. While nothing can be done about the height, most NFL teams would probably ask Smith to add weight to his 240 pound frame. He’ll definitely need to bulk up to take on the bigger blockers he’s certain to face at the next level, especially if he’s used as a 4-3 defensive end. The good thing is that Smith is a proven gym rat and has spent a considerable amount of time already to get his body into the condition that it needs to be in to play his position.
The perception of playing at a “mid-major” school-
Despite all of the progress that the Mid-American Conference has made in college football over the last decade-plus, the stigma of playing for this Group of Five institution still exists. For Smith, he doesn’t have to look any further than former Buffalo pass rusher Kahlil Mack (who’s now part of the playoff-bound Chicago Bears) for inspiration as a defensive player from the MAC that has found success at the next level. The conference as a whole has produced many great NFL stars which is why this stigma needs to go away. Football is football at the end of the day.
Pros and cons aside, Smith has proven himself to be quite the athlete and would raise the profile of the Huskies program in the NFL. His future success would get pro scouts to take a bigger look at the defensive players under Rod Carey’s watch. Northern Illinois has built a football factory in DeKalb and Sutton Smith is the latest product from that factory.