While UNC wasn’t quite as heavily represented in the 2018 NFL Combine as it was in the 2017 event, they did send two excellent players to Indianapolis. Cornerback M.J. Stewart and linebacker Andre Smith both showed up at the Combine ready to show the NFL why they should be drafted, and from their weigh-ins to their drills, both players succeeded. Smith was one day ahead of Stewart, and here are his official measurements:
Smith has an interesting build for a linebacker. He’s very short compared to his peers at the position; Mockdraftable has his height at the 6th percentile for inside linebacker prospects in their database. His weight, though, is more linebacker-standard; while still below average, it falls in line with the smaller kind of inside linebacker that the modern NFL seems to covet. For reference, Luke Kuechly is listed by the Carolina Panthers at 235 pounds, though he was 242 at his combine. But despite his compact build for a linebacker, Smith’s length and hands are elite: His 33-inch arms and almost 79-inch wingspan are both higher than the 80th percentile, and his hand size isn’t far behind. This is a huge deal in terms of projecting his coverage ability at the next level.
Smith is an enigma going into the draft, having declared for the draft coming off a season-ending injury. He has very little tape to go off from his junior season, though it should be said that the one-and-a-half games he did play were very impressive. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that there are a lot of questions about his game. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein has serious questions about his ability against the pass, writing that he:
Lacks desired speed to play sideline to sideline football on next level. Slow to diagnose and respond to play-action fakes. Lacks man cover talent on passing downs. May be forced off the field in passing situations.
(Don’t worry, there’s some positive in there as well)
Smith’s length showed that he has the traits to improve his coverage, but he still needed to prove his speed and agility. Before we get there, though, let’s talk about UNC’s other, and considerably more hyped, representative in Indianapolis, M.J. Stewart. Here are the measurements:
This was an excellent measurement for Stewart. He was being pigeonholed as a nickel/slot corner because of a perceived lack of size, but that height, arm length, and wingspan should have dispelled those concerns immediately for the majority of teams. Teams that follow the Seattle Seahawks’ famously stringent rules for DBs (32-inch arms are a must, 77-inch wingspan is preferred) may find that Stewart misses the cut, but he is by no means a slot-only corner for most teams in the league. Stewart also faced some questions about his deep speed; the only negative note about him at the Senior Bowl was that he was beat deep a few times by James Washington, one of the draft’s premier deep threats.
So the same question, more or less, faced both of UNC’s representatives: Could they keep up with offensive players downfield? Both were known to be heat-seeking missiles who do excellent work with the ball in front of them, but there were questions about Stewart’s ability to cover deep and Smith’s ability to cover sideline-to-sideline. The 40-yard dash is an overrated test for the most part, mostly because it’s easy to understand and looks kind of like a professional sport for spectators (as opposed to other drills, which all look like football practice). But for Smith and Stewart, it was actually going to matter.
They passed with flying colors.
Smith ran the 40 in 4.63 seconds, which might seem overshadowed by the top linebackers in the class (Terrell Edmunds clocked a 4.55, Roquan Smith finished in 4.51, and, of course, Shaquem Griffin wowed with a 4.38), but it’s important to remember that the fastest linebackers are outside linebackers. Smith’s time was at the 86th percentile for inside linebackers, and should dispel all questions about his range and play speed. Even if people want to say he didn’t display it on tape, this is evidence that he has the ability to play sideline-to-sideline at the NFL level.
Stewart wasn’t quite as impressive compared to his peers; his time of 4.54 is solidly below average for the position. However, it’s easily fast enough to play outside or in the slot in the NFL, Richard Sherman recorded the same time coming out of Stanford. Josh Norman’s 40 time was even slower. Technique and recovery speed, both of which Stewart has in spades, make that speed viable in the NFL even if he isn’t the absolute burner that some of his peers are.
Smith was unable to participate in position and agility drills at the Combine after apparently pulling a hamstring on his 40-yard dash (making his time even more impressive), but those carry more weight at a Pro Day than a 40 would, and he should be able to excel at UNC’s Pro Day. He did record 19 bench press reps, below average for the position but certainly acceptable.
Stewart, on the other hand, was able to participate in all drills, and continued to impress there, showing good footwork and hip fluidity in the cornerback drills. His 18 bench press reps at 225 pounds was extremely impressive for a defensive back of his size (and tied for 4th in this year’s group), and he proved what we already knew about his agility by recording a 6.90 second 3-cone drill, coming in at the 55th percentile for defensive backs. His short shuttle time of 4.20 was less exemplary, but he made up for it with a very good 60-yard shuttle time, coming in at the 73rd percentile among cornerbacks with a time of 11.19 seconds. Overall, Stewart’s athletic profile, or “spider chart,” shows a slightly undersized, slightly slower-than average cornerback with plus stamina and agility; a player who can play in the NFL but not without excellent technique. Again, this shouldn’t be a problem for Stewart.
It will be interesting to see if both players can further improve their stock at UNC’s Pro Day, which will likely take place some time in March (last year’s was on March 21st). Smith, at least, promises this: