I first laid eyes on Sean Smith when he was at the University of Utah. A former wide receiver turned cornerback, he was a longiligne athlete who moved with fluidity and quickness, the kind of movement most aren’t able to at 6’4″. Not to mention, he had ball-skills that carried over from his receiving days, recovery speed to keep up with receivers downfield, and impressive versatility, all of which were perhaps best illustrated on one play during a stunning 2009 Sugar Bowl win against Alabama.
Smith was the nickel corner in the slot — an unusual position for him — and was faced with a vertical route down the middle of the field when the play began. When it did, he misfired with a straight-handed jam, which resulted in him falling multiple steps behind the receiver and having to play catch-up. Eventually, he found his footing and pursued the receiver, tracking him down and swiping the thrown ball away at the last second.
It was a beautiful play and one that helped solidify my declaration of him being the top cornerback in the 2009 NFL draft. But going into his fifth year, Smith is not the best corner from that class, and he’s failed to live up to (my) expectations. He’s been wildly inconsistent in his first four years, bouncing between good and bad play from not just week-to-week, but play-to-play.
Allow me to use his Week 4 performance against the Arizona Cardinals as an example. Raw data shows two interceptions and four pass deflections, a busy and quality afternoon on the gridiron for Smith. A closer look suggests incredible inconsistency, however. Although he shut down Larry Fitzgerald on some plays and recorded multiple turnovers and pass breakups, he was burned on multiple occasions too.
Smith’s most faulty burn came in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter when he gave up a touchdown to wide receiver Andre Roberts because of a silly mistake.
It was 4th-and-10 with 29 seconds left, and the Cardinals had the ball at Miami’s 15-yard line. Smith was lined up to the wide side of the field — the far left of the offense’s — and he was going to be playing off-man coverage against Roberts, who was the No. 1 receiver in a “trips” formation.
At the snap, Smith slowly backpedaled with his back facing the corner of the end zone while Roberts ran a vertical stem. After 12 yards of running, the cushion between the two tightened and Roberts made the first move. He shifted his shoulders outside as if he was running an outside-breaking route, which startled Smith. He kicked his legs back and lost his footing, and in turn gave Roberts a step to the inside.
This was the beginning of the end for Smith. Because he was beaten to the inside by Roberts, he had to make up the ground to prevent a touchdown pass. When he tried to, he turned his entire back to the sideline and focused his attention on intercepting a potential pass from quarterback Kevin Kolb. That gave a green light to Roberts to execute a post-corner route.
Smith’s poor positioning and over-aggressiveness made it difficult to work back to the outside, leading to him getting beaten there for a game-tying touchdown with 24 seconds left.
Football is all about angles, technique, and discipline, none of which Smith has mastered since coming out of Utah in 2009. That’s why he’s been an inconsistent professional despite possessing immense physical talent.
Now onto his second team in five years, the soon to be 26-year-old will have to step his game up to earn his $18 million contract. Will he? If he does, he just might become what I expected him to be when I evaluated him in 2009 — the best cornerback from the draft class.