Braden Smith – best offensive lineman in the 2018 NFL draft

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Earlier this week we began to look at the class of offensive tackles eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft:

https://hawktalk.net/2018-offensive-tackle-rankings-high-profile-prospects/

Before we cover the underrated OT prospects sure to interest Seattle in 2018, let’s pause to consider Braden Smith of the Auburn Tigers. He may very well be the best offensive lineman in the 2018 draft, and a prime target for the Seahawks.

Braden Smith – RG, Auburn – 6’6, 305 lbs – 2016 grade: 1st round talent

I initially checked out Braden Smith while evaluating offensive tackles for 2018, as Auburn used him at RT during spring practices. Instead, he’s stayed at RG for 2017, but more on that later. I couldn’t ignore what a dominant force Smith is for the Tigers, and how he perfectly fits what Seattle looks for in an offensive lineman.

The first thing that stands out about Smith is he doesn’t look like the typical offensive lineman. There’s next to no bad weight on him, yet still weighs over 300 lbs. He’s got a killer physique. Here is Smith as a freshman with Shon Coleman:


As you can probably tell from that photo, he’s ridiculously strong. Smith threw over 61 feet in the shot put in high school Track & field competition, further than any 2016 NFL combine participant was able to in HS.

And here’s Smith bench pressing 515 lbs (with spotters) … back in high school

Beast.

That raw power has translated on to the football field for Auburn, even though he’s a little light for a guard. He angles defensive linemen away from the ball or blasts them off the LOS with his feet churning to create huge running lanes.

His lower body explosion is also off the charts. He fires off the ball with great pad level for his height. Given his mobility, Auburn uses him as a pulling guard a lot. Smith accurately targets & absolutely buries defenders in the hole when doing so.

Just how athletic is Braden Smith?

He checked in at #12 on Sports Illustrated’s 2017 Freaks List: The Top 40 workout warriors in college football.  According to Auburn strength & conditioning coach Ryan Russell, Smith “has been clocked at 4.95 in the 40, vertical jumped 33 inches and broad jumped 9’9 ½”.

That kind of explosion is remarkable for a 300+ lbs lineman. The last time an OL broad jumped over 9’9” at the combine was 2013. No OL managed a 33” vertical at last year’s combine.

Russell also had this to say:

“The most impressive thing to me is his mobility in his ankle and his hips. Normally a guy his size who is that strong and powerful will be stiff and has trouble moving efficiently. Braden’s movement efficiency is incredibly smooth and is something you don’t see too often with a guy that size.”

Braden is the total package athletically, but that’s not all. Tigers offensive line coach Herb Hand was also asked by SI what’s most impressive about Smith:

“His approach to his craft. Very business like. Really developing as a leader too. Holding the rest of the unit accountable to the standards he has set.”

Smith is a smart player with good hand usage, though he can overextend too far ahead of his feet at times. He’s also not as mobile laterally, and doesn’t have especially long arms. Therefore, he’ll likely make a home at the guard position in the NFL as well.

Smith is above average in pass protection. He only gave up 2 sacks and 15 total pressures across the 2015-2016 seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. He has natural leverage to hold his ground inside, with quick feet to mirror rushers, and awareness to pick up stunts & blitzes. While run blocking is his specialty, Smith will by no means be a liability protecting NFL QB’s.

2017 update

Smith is off to a great start to the 2017 season, as he looks to lock up a spot in the first round of the 2018 draft. He earned PFF SEC team of the week honors against an over-matched Georgia Southern defense in week 1. The highlights show Smith blasting open gaping holes for multiple long runs by the Tigers.

The real test was a heavyweight showdown with Clemson in week 2. Clemson has the best defensive line in the country, led by DT’s Christian Wilkins & Dexter Lawrence. They are freak athletes themselves, and potential top 5 picks in the 2018 & 2019 NFL drafts, respectively. The film is below: (Smith RG, #71).

Auburn’s offensive line was predictably torched as a group, surrendering 11 sacks in a 6-point effort. However, Smith actually had a fantastic individual performance.

He primarily matched up with Wilkins, and got the better of him for most of the game. He routinely generated movement off the line, put defenders in the dirt, and had some excellent combo blocks.

On this particular snap, Wilkins gets an incredible jump off the snap. Smith patiently collects him, drives his feet and puts him in the dirt:

Smith was close to having a clean sheet in pass protection, but Wilkins beat him for a sack with a nice club & rip in the 2nd quarter. Smith otherwise made it look easy in pass pro throughout the game. There were a several reps where he completely stymied Wilkins in particular.

After an inconsistent performance vs. Alabama’s elite D-Line in 2016, I was looking for a better performance vs. top competition in Smith’s senior year. He passed with flying colors.

Draft outlook & Seahawks interest

After a performance like that, it may not be exaggerating to say Braden Smith is the top offensive line prospect in the 2018 draft. He checks every single box a scout can look for and then some. There has already been some first-round hype around Smith, according to Draft Analyst’s Tony Pauline. Likely to be viewed as a pure guard, there’s a chance he could be available to Seattle even if they pick from their typical late-1st round spot.

If that’s the case, I don’t know that Seattle would be able to pass on this guy. Tom Cable will be pounding the table for an explosive, NFL-ready athlete like Smith. With Luke Joeckel possibly (likely?) departing in free agency, the Seahawks will have a big hole to fill at LG. Seattle has shown a propensity for immediately moving drafted OL’s to new positions. Recent examples include Ethan Pocic, Justin Senior, Germain Ifedi, Rees Odhiambo, Mark Glowinski & Justin Britt. So I doubt they’d have much concern about transitioning Smith over to the LG spot. Presumably they’d like to settle on a right side of Pocic & Ifedi for 2018 & beyond.

Check back at HawkTalk later this week for a breakdown of underrated OT’s sure to rise on draft boards in the coming months.