(Editor's note: More than 320 standout college players put their skills on display at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. From that group will come the majority of young men who will hear their names called during the 2011 NFL Draft in April. Buccaneers.com was at the Combine, and during the weeks leading up to this year's draft, we will be taking a closer look at some of players who participated in six days of workouts, interviews and medical evaluations in Indianapolis. This series is NOT meant to reflect any specific opinions of the actual draft decision-makers in the Buccaneers' player personnel department. Any mention of draft-board status or a player's strengths and weaknesses are from outside sources, not the team's own scouting work. Next up in our series is Missouri defensive end – or perhaps, linebacker – Aldon Smith.)
Aldon Smith played just two seasons at the University of Missouri after redshirting as a true freshman in 2008. At the end of his second Mizzou campaign, one that was both impressive but hampered by injury, Smith contemplated forgoing his last two years of NCAA eligibility and making the jump to the NFL.
The former Kansas City-area prep star did what most every young prospect in such a position: He submitted an inquiry to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a council of general managers, personnel directors and scouts that offers considered opinions on where a prospect can expect to be taken in the upcoming draft. Knowing whether first-round recognition or undrafted free agency is in a player's future can help him decide whether the time is right to make the leap.
The best thing Smith heard back from the Advisory Board: There was room for growth. As it turns out, that's exactly how NFL scouts feel about Smith himself.
"I got the grade back from the NFL," the 2009 Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year recalled. "It was a second-round grade and I took that into consideration. Being that I was hurt and I was an underclassman, I thought that was pretty good. I thought I had a chance to help move myself up a little bit."
A two-way prep star in the K.C. suburb of Raytown, Smith chose Missouri over Nebraska and Kansas and headed to Columbia believing he would get on the field quickly. However, the Tigers' staff chose to go the redshirt route with the young pass-rusher, perhaps to give him time to expand his then-220-pound frame. It was anything but a wasted year for Smith, as he impressed again and again on the practice field and convinced the coaches he was ready for a big role in 2009.
And a big role he got, playing in all 13 games and starting 11. All Smith did with that playing time was break Mizzou's single-season record for sacks, with 11.5, ranking ninth nationally in sacks per game and 14th in tackles for loss per game. He racked up 64 tackles, 19 of them in the backfield, broke up five passes and even teamed up with Brian Coulter to record a crucial late-game safety that led to the Tigers' comeback win over Kansas.
Smith's 2010 campaign was marred by a broken bone in his left leg, which caused him to miss three games in the season's first half. He still added 5.5 sacks, including two in the season opener against Illinois, and upon his return from injury immediately snared a crucial interception that helped Missouri defeat the number-one-ranked Oklahoma Sooners.
Smith was playing at about 255 pounds by that time, though he was still just 21 years old, with time to develop. When the Draft Advisory Board returned a second-round estimation, Smith considered that the floor, a starting point, and believed he could convince NFL teams he was even more valuable than that.
If the sea of mock drafts published this winter and spring are any indication, he was right.
A quick study of 13 up-to-date mock drafts, from ESPN's Mel Kiper to SI.com's Don Banks shows the Missouri pass-rusher going no later than 20th overall. Even in a class considered extremely deep at defensive end, Smith is predicted by some to go as high as 11th (to Houston) with other potential landing spots seen as 14th (St. Louis), 16th (Jacksonville), 17th (New England) and, yes, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at #20.
Will Smith go above or below Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, a senior and a more seasoned player coming off a 12.5-sack season? How about North Carolina's Robert Quinn, who didn't even play in 2010 but is thought to have special skills off the edge? Does he have more potential than Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, or more versatility than Wisconsin's J.J. Watt? Scouts say that Smith is something of a raw prospect, but with a very high ceiling as a pass rusher. At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Smith decided the only way to address such questions was to present his best self.
"I've been told if I just be myself I've got a good chance of making a big [splash]," he said. "I just have to show off my abilities. Everybody's talented in different ways and I think what separates me is being athletic.
"I would say I'm up there with [the best defensive ends]. I've seen what they've done. I've watched a lot of them and I've tried to learn how they do things. I think I've bit off a little of their games and tried to add them to mine."
There are other questions regarding Smith's NFL future, as there are with any prospect, though he says his leg is not one of them. Fully recovered from the 2010 injury, Smith submitted to full X-rays at the Combine and didn't throw up any red flags. He then ran a 4.74-second 40-yard dash, which was among the best in the DE group, and nearly posted the top marks at his position in the vertical leap (34 inches) and the broad jump (118 inches).
The more pressing question about Smith – and it's more a matter of clarification than concern – is just what position he's best suited for in the NFL. He has put on nearly 10 pounds since the end of Mizzou's season, to approximately 265, and is obviously still moving around as well as ever. Still, some scouts think he's best suited to play rush linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, a la DeMarcus Ware.
Smith believes he could play linebacker in the NFL if that's what his new team wants.
"I've had a lot of 3-4 and 4-3 looks," he said. "I like the 3-4 a lot but I like the 4-3, too. Wherever I can help a team… I would like [dropping into coverage]. The little bit I did at Missouri, I liked it"
Others compare the lean, 6-4 Smith to a Jevon Kearse or Jason Taylor type, and those two thrived as defensive ends in a 4-3 front. Smith says he can stand up to the run and still keep his pad level low if his future is as a 4-3 end.
"I've gained a lot of weight in the offseason," he said. "I've gained about 10 pounds and I feel great. I think I've learned how to use my size to my advantage, whether that be getting skinny at certain times and everything like that."
As young as he is, Smith has been contemplating that NFL future for years now. The seed of that thought initially took root after his very first high school game in Raytown, in which he recorded his first sack. A coach pulled him aside after the game and told him he had "special ability." His continuing belief in that talent is what prompted him to attempt this early move to the NFL, and he has had no reason to regret the decision.
"I kind of thought about [his coach's words], and from there on I've run with it," said Smith. "It's amazing. The dream is getting closer and closer."