MOBILE, Ala. — Former Michigan back De’Veon Smith knows he’s swimming in a deep pool of tailbacks in this draft. But while LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey jockey for position in the first round, Smith can pump himself up for Senior Bowl practice by considering this list of the NFL’s top five rushers this past regular season:
1. Ezekiel Elliott: First round (No. 4 overall)
2. Jordan Howard: Fifth round (No. 150 overall)
3. DeMarco Murray: Third round (No. 71 overall)
4. Jay Ajayi: Fifth round (No. 149 overall)
5. Le’Veon Bell: Second round (No. 48 overall)
This tailback class is so deep that at least one player taken between rounds three and six likely will wind up on a similar list in the coming years. There is so much value in the middle rounds that teams trying to decide whether to select an elite back or an elite offensive lineman early probably should take the lineman to block for the back they’ll take in round four. That back may be Smith, who played so well at East-West Shrine Game practices last week that he earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl. This week, Smith and BYU’s Jamaal Williams have opened some eyes.
Smith, who gained 846 yards on 181 carries and scored 10 rushing touchdowns for the Wolverines in 2016, has looked more elusive than he did in Ann Arbor. He also has proven he can catch. Add those traits to his blocking ability and his familiarity with pro-style protections after playing two seasons for Jim Harbaugh, and Smith suddenly looks like a mid-round pick a team can plug in immediately. And if the line in front of him is good enough, Smith could wind up on one of those lists.
Smith hasn’t taken a rep off in either all-star game’s practices as he tries to make a good impression on NFL scouts. Staying intense has been easy for him, though. “You’re trying to take somebody else’s job,” he said. “And somebody’s trying to take yours.” Smith said his mother, Audreana Smith, provides even more motivation. She works as a nurse’s aid and as a bus driver, and Smith would like to allow her to take it easy for once. “That’s more motivation to get up,” he said. If Smith performs through the rest of the pre-draft process the way he has the past two weeks, he’ll have that opportunity. “We’re going to shed a tear on that day,” he said. “I can tell you that much. There’s going to be some tears flowing on that day.”
Raising his profile at the Shrine game and at the Senior Bowl hasn’t changed Smith’s outlook on the pre-draft process, though. In a stacked class, he’ll have to keep this up through the combine and his pro day to ensure he gets his name called and his crack at a future version of the list above. “This process is still going until the day I get that Hall of Fame jacket,” Smith said. “Nothing is finished. You feel me?”
Then he smiled. The jacket may be a dream for Smith. The chance at a productive NFL career feels like a reality.