Tales from the SunnySide: Alphonso Smith

There's not much debate about one thing - Alphonso Smith is the second 2nd-round pick in two years to ignite an instant firestorm of controversy in Denver. Eddie Royal managed it first - think back, now, to that weekend and to the things that were said.

When that 42nd pick came in, Broncos fans were shocked, stunned and horrified. Begrudgingly, they accepted that perhaps he could be worth the pick by his prowess in the return game.

Giving up a 2nd-round pick on a scrawny kick returner with some receiving skills was a big stretch, the media agreed, but perhaps Mike Shanahan really felt that the team needed a return guy. DeSean Jackson, the consensus went, would have been a better pick. Getting a defensive tackle would have been a much better way to go all around. And so it went. This year may prove to be somewhat redundant in that respect - everything that I've been able to accumulate about Smith indicates that he, very much like Eddie Royal, may become a favorite of the Broncos' fan base in the near future.

A brief bit of background - the best discussion of his high-school career came from Consensus Draft Services:

Alphonso is a 2004 graduate of Pahokee (FL) High School where he was an all-everything athlete in both football and basketball. A talented player at both quarterback and defensive back for the football team, Antonio was runner-up for state Player of the Year as he helped the Blue Devils to a 13-1 record and the 2B state championship. He was named the MVP of the state title game during which he threw a 58-yard TD strike to current Deacon teammate Demir Boldin. As a quarterback, Alphonso threw for 2,400 yards and 32 touchdowns and also rushed for 640 yards and six rushing TDs. All in all, he was responsible for 38 touchdowns as a senior, including scores on interception, punt, kickoff and fumble returns. He notched 27 tackles, a sack and four interceptions as a cornerback, earning first-team all-state honors. He was also selected to play in the Outback Bowl and the Palm Beach All-Star Game. He was also a starting guard on the basketball team.

NFLDraftScout.com started their discussion about Alphonso Smith this way:

Smith is just the third player this century to amass 20 or more interceptions in a career, joining Jim Leonhard of Wisconsin (21, 2001-04) and Mitch Meeuwsen of Oregon State (20, 2001-04), and only the second in Atlantic Coast Conference annals to reach that lofty mark (Dre' Bly of North Carolina had 20, 1996-98). Only nine other players in the history of college football (all levels) have produced more interceptions in a career than Smith.

What makes Smith even more valuable at his position is his ability to make big plays in the backfield. Few cornerbacks, much less ones that stand just 5-feet-9 can boast having nine sacks, 23.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and eight forced fumbles on those hits during a career. He also adds to his resume as a capable kickoff returner, averaging 20.7 yards for his career, along with using his superb leaping ability and timing to block five kicks during his time at Wake Forest.

As I was researching this article, I kept reading the same sorts of information, laid out in slightly different ways, but containing no news or insight on the facts that would have helped me to understand this player, this pick. My thought was that unless I found out why Coach McDaniels was looking at this player at this time, the rest of the arguments wouldn't make sense. I got to the New Era Scouting report and finally found what I was looking for. Here it is:

Best Fit Position/Role: Boundary Corner

Ideal Schema/Role: Cover 2/Cover 3

Smith is a great playmaker at the corner position. He has the potential to change games when on the field. Beyond his excellent ball skills Smith has shown to be a complete player with his ability to blitz and play the run. His lack of size and top end speed make him an ideal zone coverage corner, and with his instincts and playmaking ability he will be able to play the long side of the field in that scheme and be left out on an island at times.

That put it all in perspective. Josh McDaniels is probably either going to a zone coverage system or is looking to use zone attributes for Smith. He believes that he will be able to play the long side of the field. He probably trusts him to be left on an island some of the time. It might be just that simple. Oh, and he's also aware that Smith's already accomplished something that exactly three college players in the past 100 years have done. When you consider this pick from that perspective, it suddenly makes a lot more sense. But is this right? After all, Cover 2 is a system in which there is a balanced approach to playing the pass and the run and which uses zone coverage to achieve that, while Cover 3 is a formation. They're not telling us everything. What else is missing?

Also from NFLDraftScout.com:

Man Coverage Ability: Smith is a natural ball thief with outstanding feet and ability to mirror and adjust to the receiver's movements. He can stick his hands in the face of his man to impede his opponent's vision of the ball in flight and does a very nice job of planting, redirecting and flipping his hips. He is equally efficient playing the trail, cover or cushion, and rarely allows cushion on the route.

That filled in a lot of the gaps. Apparently, Smith has some versatility. Where did New Era suggest that he be taken? Top 20, 1st round. Whichever side of the controversy you stand on, it's worth putting that into perspective, too. Won't the Broncos need a corner, this year or next? Of course. Did we have a chance to get a top-20 1st-round pick to add to 1st-rounders #12 and 18? Yes, and depending on where the Bears finish, we may have another. Are we going to use a zone-coverage system? Almost certainly, but having a player with the additional abilities to play trail, cover or cushion and to be a constant threat for interceptions as a ball-hawk adds spice to the soup. Whether you approve of the pick or not, it makes sense to try to understand why McDaniels would go this route, and there is a lot here to recognize. Are there things beyond his skill in coverage and at interceptions that might have drawn the Broncos?

There are - The NY Times ran a great article on Ed Reed, one of the greatest to ever play the game. Here's what they said:

When Reed joined the Ravens, another former Hurricane, Ray Lewis, taught him how to do his N.F.L. homework during early-morning and late-night film sessions, in season and out, often at Lewis's home. Other players marvel at the details Reed picks up; sometimes it is more than other players or even coaches have unearthed.

Whenever you see photos or film of the mini-camps, you can see Alphonso standing next to Champ Bailey. Smith is no fool - he's gifted with a chance to learn from one of the best corners in NFL history. He's constantly asking questions, listening to Champ, gaining insight. But what about the film room?

That's another area that Champ will teach Alphonso. He's a pro in the film room, and he does incredible prep every week, for every game. Sun Tzu, in his immortal work ‘The Art of War' noted, "First, know yourself. If you know yourself and you know your enemy, you will not be defeated, even in 100 battles." Champ may not read Sun Tzu (although I wouldn't be surprised if he did), but he understands the lesson inherent here. The cornerback who already knows what his opponent likes to do, tends to do and will do unconsciously has a huge advantage. Speed is nice, but it's of little use if you are at the seam and your receiver has broken to the sideline. Height is good, but it doesn't matter if the cornerback is between you and the ball and has already deflected it. Knowledge is the second key of a great cornerback.

What is the first key? As Charles Dimry, cornerback for the Denver Broncos in the early 1990s and a 12-year veteran of the game told me, the first key of a great cornerback is confidence. Confidence is what matters because every single cornerback is going to get burned. Look up the top-10 cornerbacks in history and you have a great list of the guys who have been burned, over and over. They just didn't let it get to them. They came back just as confident, shook it off and used their skills to harm the confidence of those who beat them the first time, or even used it as overconfidence to snatch the next pass out from their very hands.

New Era Scouting covered that, too:

Smith is fearless on the field, routinely coming up to support the run. A natural playmaker, Smith left Wake Forest as the ACC's career leader with 21 interceptions. This penchant for the big play translated onto the practice field at the Senior Bowl, where Smith intercepted passes in front of hundreds of scouts on each of the first three days of work.

Inevitably, it all comes down to this; Alphonso Smith is one of the top college CBs of the past decade - and beyond. He's set records, disheartened opponents, has football intelligence, experience at playing quarterback that he translates into his cornerback position, and possesses playing speed and timing that are other-worldly.

But he's 5'9" (and change). To some, that's the kiss of doom in the pros. To others, it's a fact of life that has a relatively small impact in correlation to the other factors present. To McDaniels, it was a simple decision. He had four #1 picks  over the next two years, and he chose to use three of them this year. He felt that Smith was a consensus 1st-round pick and that given what they saw in their copious film on him, that he was worth the pick. It was worth it in part because by doing it this way, they got a full year's experience from a player, and it made the player one year closer to being ready to start in the NFL. He used it, and that's the end of that part of the story. Whether you support it or not - it's done.

But a question that is constantly ignored in the heat of a superficial ‘is he/isn't he' type of discussion is this - What is his best use and what type of coverage is he perfectly suited for? You see, that's the real question here. Not where he should have been drafted, not whether a #1 next year is worth a #2 this year, not how tall he is. If you understand where he belongs in coverage, you can begin to formulate how the Nolan/McDaniels secondary is planning to play, because that's exactly what he's being chosen and groomed for.

Consensus Draft Services didn't rate him that highly, compared to the other scouting reports out there. In fact, they were the only one to consider him solely a second-round pick, so I want to get their opinion in this as well. I'm trying to be fair, despite my feelings on this subject. Here is what they had to say:

Amazingly gifted athlete who plays much bigger than he lists. Exceptional anticipation skills, and really reads the QB like a book. Jumps routes and disguises what he is going to do until the last second. Can play a little bump and run, despite his stature. Strong and compact for his size. Will fight the ball away from bigger receivers. Times his leaps and his deflections perfectly. Dekes the QB into committing, then jumps the route and picks the ball. Very good hands for the interception. Gifted technician who does not get by just on his excellent speed. Versatile. Big play corner. Ball hawk and game changer

Okay, please remember that these are the folks who didn't think him as highly rated, and that alone should give you pause. Their knock on him is size, purely and without equivocation, although they tossed in that his vertical leap wasn't elite, and that's true too.  And, that said, here was what they described as his weaknesses:

Size will always be a limiting factor, but he should start as a nickel year one in a good secondary, or start year one for a team with no proven NFL-caliber corners. Career starter from at least year two. #2 corner for anybody, and a Pro Bowl verge player.

This is a player who they expect to be a career starter at year two and, as they suggested earlier, he's going to be the nickel starter this year unless Jack Williams gets a bonfire lit under him. He should be a #2 corner who can play multiple approaches in a zone coverage and/or a Pro Bowler. And this is from the people that don't like him as well. That really means a great deal, because it tells us just how good the draft scouts think he will be.

Alphonso Smith and the Combine

Alphonso Smith really didn't have a great Combine. In a world where careers and millions of dollars ride on doing a group of exercises that may and may not particularly have anything to do with your future job or present skill level (and yes, I'm prejudiced about anyone's Combine, because at this point so much of the scout grading starts to ignore the film), Smith had the following scores:

5'9"+ 190 lbs.

40 - 4.51 (cds said 4.53)

Bench - 13 - not much of a factor in zone coverage and his arms are long for his size

Broad jumped an impressive 10'9"

Vertical - 34 (some are using 32, but 34 is the accurate Combine number)

3 cone - 7.09

20-yard shuttle - 7.38

He's not scoring highly in any of these categories. Despite this, his film and on-field abilities are absolutely stellar. Looking at his records, you have to recognize his skill set and quality. Looking at the Combine numbers alone, perhaps he's not as good. The question will be whether or not he can make the jump to the NFL level, and that question remains. On one side are the measurables; on the other, the film and performance record. They just don't agree, and that's certainly something that's worth debating.

Alphonso Smith: NCAA Career Rankings

The next part of this debate is purely a discussion of what his college performance was like. To answer that fairly, you have to be willing to look at his NCAA career rankings. It's true that the pros are not the same as college opponents, but no one argues that Knowshon Moreno is any less of a back because he decimated other college players. As far as Smith's NCAA rankings, there are several, among players active in 2008:

  • Interceptions - #1
  • Interceptions - yards - #7
  • Interceptions for TDs - #1
  • Interceptions per game - #3
  • Punt Returns, TD - 18

To help people make their decisions, I've included some YouTube links that show off his work. I can't add much more - his accomplishments speak for themselves

Leveling Shun White

Interception YouTube:  

Highlight YouTube: 

And finally, getting his freak on, pregame

Injury History

As you probably know, I always look at a player's injury history when formulating an opinion on him. I took a long look at Smith's, and found very little. In fact, he's never missed a single game.

Eddie Royal? As long as we're comparing ill-received 2nd-round picks, let's recall that Eddie came with a warning label. He'd had several leg issues from a problem with a hamstring pull to compartment syndrome in his calf, and from a leg bruise to a sprained toe. There was a lot of hue and cry that a man his size couldn't hold up in the NFL. Now? Yes, I know, they are different players...but the total lack of injuries matters when you're looking at a player. A four-year starter who has never missed a game is a rare player, no matter how you perceive him.

A lot of pre-draft scouting reports suggested that Smith has a lot in common with the game of Jim Leonhard. I've added a link to help you understand what that might mean. That's a good compliment.

I'm not interested in changing a man's point of view. The right to one's opinions is sacrosanct. What I am interested in is expanding the knowledge basis that makes up that opinion. After that, which way you go doesn't matter to me at all.

Alphonso Smith has already done what only three men in a century have done. Does that make him a great pro? No. As a matter of fact, many very good college corners can't play in the NFL. But in general, that's not about size. It's about skill. His level of skill isn't unusual. It is very good. He's one of the best college players in a decade - and very likely, longer than that. That's what makes it far more likely that he'll be a good - a very good - NFL cornerback. That, precise timing, superb reflexes, and a tremendous football intelligence. Those things aren't opinion. They're just facts.

Beyond that, we really can't say. There will be no end in sight to the size/skill debate, and that's as it should be. The answer will only come with time, with practice, and with a new NFL season of football. I don't know about you, but just from me personally -

Bring on Training Camp!

Originally posted at MHR

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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