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James Smith-Williams is an athletic freak who could prove to be defensive line depth

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Florida State v North Carolina State Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

James Smith-Williams, DL

School: NC State | Conference: ACC
College Experience: RS-Senior | Age: 22
Height / Weight: 6’4” / 265 lbs
NFL Comparison: Ryan Kerrigan

College Statistics

Player Overview

When the Redskins took NC State defensive lineman James Smith-Williams with their second pick in the 7th round of the 2020 draft, lots of fans were left scratching their heads. Smith-Williams wasn’t on the radar of many draft followers, and wasn’t someone who was getting much attention on the big boards of draft “experts.” NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, who writes the most accessible pre-draft assessments of prospects, ended his review with this rather uninspiring account from an NFC Scout:

“He can’t stay on the field. There is no way we draft a guy like that. If we like a player with his injury history, we’ll target him as a free agent, but that’s it.”

So why did the Redskins roll the dice on Smith-Williams in the seventh?

Let’s start with the very good: Smith-Williams is apparently incredibly bright. He got 30 on his ACT and had a weighted 4.9 GPA in high school. By his own account, growing up, academics were always the priority, and that carried over to college, where Smith-Williams spent two summers in paid internships at IBM. In 2019, he was one of eleven FBS players named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team recognizing exemplary student-athletes.

Before the 2019 season, NC State head coach Dave Doeren honored Smith-Williams with #1, given to student athletes that exemplify work ethic, character and leadership. Smith-Williams was also named team captain his senior year.

Those honors are all well and good, but we know that what ultimately matters for Smith-Williams in DC is how he plays on the field. Before the 2019 season, the Athletic’s Bruce Feldman named his annual “College Football Freaks List,” a menagerie of players “displaying the type of rare physical abilities that wow even those folks who are used to observing gifted athletes every day.”

The top five players on that list? 1) Tristan Wirfs (selected #13 in the 2020 draft); 2) Neville Gallimore (selected #82 in the 2020 draft); 3) James Smith-Williams (selected #229 in the 2020 draft); 4) Isaiah Simmons (selected #8 in the 2020 draft); and, 5) Jonathan Taylor (selected #41 in the 2020 draft). One of these things is not like the others, so what did Feldman see in Smith-Williams?

No player on this entire list has had the type of transformation that Smith-Williams has had. He arrived five years ago weighing a spindly 196 pounds. Now he’s a hulking 265. He benches 420, doing 27 reps at 225. He squats 620 and cleans 374. Smith-Williams vertical jumps 40 inches and has clocked a 4.43 in his pro agility time. Earlier this week, he ran an electronically timed 40 at 4.58. The hand time was 4.52.

Smith-Williams is one of the most respected players in the Wolfpack program. He’s already graduated, interned two years with IBM and has a job once football is over.

Dantonio Burnett, State’s strength coach, says of Smith-Williams, “He has learned how to translate the athletic development (weight training) over to the field. This was the same thing we saw with those other four D-linemen that got drafted. Once they figured it out and put it all together, they became really good players. He’s taken the blueprint that Bradley, BJ (Hill), Justin (Jones) and (Kentavius) Street put into place and has ran with it. He’s always getting the young guys together to do extra work. He’s taken on the leadership role and he’s definitely primed for a big year.”

Unfortunately, due to injury, Smith-Williams was only able to start 7 games in 2019, and wasn’t able to approximate his great 2018 season (37 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, and 6 sacks).

So what has Smith-Williams done to allay his persistent injury concerns? His lower body injury - it appears to have been an ankle - was severe enough to keep him out of games, but apparently wasn’t so severe that it required surgery. He took the time necessary to heal and recover, and spent the pre-draft period working out at EXOS, rehabbing at expert facilities, and ended up having a very strong Combine.

Strengths

  • High character, well regarded by coaches and teammates.
  • Impressive athletic profile.
  • Has a strong bull rush.
  • Good length.
  • Relentless.

Weaknesses

  • Has struggled with injury issues.
  • Has to work on shedding blocks.
  • May not be quick enough to play on the edge consistently.

Let’s See His Work

How He Would Fit

Smith-Williams is bright player with demonstrated leadership ability and top of the chart athletics. Normally, that would be a recipe for a Day 1 or 2 pick in the draft. As a result of persistent injury concerns, his draft stock was nearly non-existent. He brings defensive line versatility, with the ability to work both on the inside, stuffing the run, and potentially on the outside, focusing on pass rush, if he can improve his technique.

By all accounts, he’s a hard worker with physical traits that put him among some of the most interesting players in the 2020 draft class. If Smith-Williams can find a way to stay healthy, he will be a very interesting player to track through training camp. To me, he’s exactly the sort of potentially high ceiling (low floor) player that it makes sense to take a chance on in the late rounds of the draft.