How Minneapolis's Elerson Smith Went From Two-Star Recruit to 2021 NFL Draft Prospect

After a stellar career at Northern Iowa, the ultra-athletic Smith is one of the most exciting middle-round edge rushers in this year's draft.
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Coming out of South High School in Minneapolis, Elerson Smith was a 190-pound defensive end with minimal college interest. He was either a two-star recruit or unranked entirely, depending on where you looked. He wasn't exactly on a clear path to playing professional football.

And yet, five years and 70 pounds later, Smith is widely expected to be selected in the upcoming NFL Draft (April 29-May 1), with most mocks projecting him to land somewhere between the third and sixth round. Despite not playing in a game since December 2019, Smith has capitalized on all of his opportunities in the pre-draft cycle and has seen his stock rise as a result.

So how did he get here? It started with the one school that gave him a chance.  

Overlooked by the University of Minnesota and other major schools across the country, Smith accepted a scholarship to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, IA. UNI competes at the FCS level, the lower subdivision of D1 football. The Panthers have produced NFL talent in the past, including well-known players like Kurt Warner, David Johnson, and L.J. Fort, but they're not known for pumping out draft prospects on a regular basis.

Still, it's a high-quality college football program, and Smith wasn't ready to play right away. The tall, skinny kid from Minneapolis had to bide his time. He redshirted as a freshman in 2016 and saw the field sparingly in his second season. But he continued to work, transforming his body and gradually improving in practice, and he burst onto the scene as a redshirt sophomore in 2018.

Smith played in all of UNI's 13 games that season, finishing second on the team with 7.5 sacks. He took things to another level the following year, recording 14 sacks, five forced fumbles, and 21.5 total tackles for loss to help lead his team to ten wins and the quarterfinals of the 2019 FCS playoffs. That included a standout season-opening performance (2.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) against Iowa State, a Power 5 school that barely survived an upset attempt from the Panthers in triple overtime.

Up to around 250 pounds at that point, the 6'6½" pass rusher used his length, power, and explosive athleticism to dominate all season and become an FCS All-American.

"From the day I got to UNI to the day I left, I was just worried about getting better," Smith told me this week. "Just focusing on the little things to get better, using every practice to try to get a little bit better at something. Right away, I wasn’t ready to play, I was a 190-pound defensive end at a good football school. So it took me a while to get on the field, but I was preparing from day one to be ready to play and that paid off when I did have a chance."

Smith was ready to shine again in his redshirt senior year in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic resulted in the postponement of the FCS season to the spring. That wouldn't work with his plans for entering the draft in 2021. So, with the draft still eight months away, he began his preparation.

The first major opportunity to prove himself as a draft prospect — beyond what he put on film over the two previous seasons — came at the end of January at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL. Smith, his UNI teammate Spencer Brown, and a handful of other FCS prospects got to compete with standout players from FBS schools throughout a week of practice and a showcase game, all of it with scouts and executives from each of the 32 NFL teams watching.

Smith more than held his own, making a strong impression throughout the week and standing out in the game itself. That was a huge week that began his ascent from fringe draft pick to potential Day 2 selection. Going against Brown — an offensive tackle who is also expected to be a middle-round draft pick in a few weeks — for multiple years at UNI helped prepare him for the moment, Smith said.

"I was happy with the week and I think the main thing is I was just going out there and competing, just hanging my hat on that," he said. "Understanding that it’s football, I’ve been playing this for the last 12 years of my life. It is on a grand scale and it’s probably a little bit different with all the scouts and GMs and coaches watching you, but I was like alright, I’m just gonna go out there and play ball and go after these dudes."

Normally, the next step in the process would be the NFL scouting combine. But with that cancelled because of the pandemic, Smith turned his focus to UNI's pro day at the end of March. He spent some time in Arizona preparing for all of the athletic tests (the 40-yard dash, bench press, jumps, and agility drills) that could help him progress further up draft boards. 

But even Smith, who admitted to being a bit nervous that day, wasn't anticipating some of the numbers he put up. With roughly 45 scouts watching — an unprecedented number for UNI — he set a personal record with a 41.5-inch vertical jump to go along with a 4.7-second 40, a 10'7" broad jump, and 26 bench press reps. He did all of that at 260 pounds. That's a rare athletic profile for an edge rusher. Those numbers, combined with what he did at the Senior Bowl and in his collegiate career, could entice an NFL team to draft Smith as early as the third round.

In the weeks since his pro day, Smith has continued to work. But instead of training for the athletic tests, he "can focus on being a better football player again."

The scouting report on Smith obviously starts with his size and movement ability. 6'6" pass rushers with his explosiveness, agility, and bend don't grow on trees. He has a constantly high motor in pursuit and the versatility to play DE in a 4-3 scheme or outside linebacker in a 3-4. Smith's skill level and physical tools — he was also an All-State tight end in high school — give him a tremendous amount of upside, but he knows he has plenty of things to keep working on in order to reach his ceiling.

"One thing I can work on, just being so tall as a player in the front seven, is improving my leverage at the point of attack," Smith said. "I think that’s something where, when I was doing it well, I would have a lot of success. It’s one of those things where it wasn’t as consistent as I wanted it to be. Having that cleaned up would help me a lot for run downs. Just cleaning up pass rush, there’s always something new you can add to your bag, whether that’s a new euro-step or something like that. Still making sure that I’ve got a good get-off and get the edge. I could talk for a while about things I want to work on, but those are the main things right now."

Something that pops up in internet scouting reports is that he needs to add functional strength to hold up better at the point of attack. Smith is quick to push back against that notion.

"I think it’s funny that people are always like ‘oh, he needs to get stronger,’ because I think I’m pretty strong already," he said. "That’s the thing, if I play with better leverage, I’m stronger than most of the dudes out there. I can move some weight. It’s just improving the little things in technique. People might not understand that it’s a technique thing, not a strength thing."

This is an exciting time in Smith's life, with just a few weeks left until he accomplishes the lifelong dream of hearing his name called in the draft. After months and months of preparation, it's almost here. He's still working out, he's still meeting with NFL teams via Zoom — Smith said he's had around 50 "job interviews," whether in-person or virtual, over the past three months — and he's looking forward to finally playing football again before too long.

Regardless of where he's headed next, he's going to embrace the opportunity to learn, improve, and do whatever it takes to help his new team succeed. He'll be starting from square one again, much like when he arrived at UNI as a true freshman five years ago.

"Someone who’s looking to contribute to wins, whether that’s on special teams, first down, second down, third down, getting guys looks in practice," Smith said when I asked him what he'll bring to an NFL franchise. "I didn’t get to this point by being better than everybody else, I got to this point by working hard. I’m just going to keep doing that, keep getting better every day, and I’m excited to bring that to a team. I’m excited to see where I end up."

Smith is no longer a skinny, unheralded kid from Minneapolis; people know his name now. But the mindset is the same — and the next chapter of his journey is just getting started.

Putting on for the city

If and when Smith plays his first snap in the NFL, he'll become the first product of South High School to do so in nearly half a century. The last South alum to play in the NFL was offensive lineman Vernon Winfield, whose two-year career with the Philadelphia Eagles ended in 1973.

Unless something surprising happens, Smith will become the first South graduate drafted since current Tigers head coach Rodney Lossow was picked by the Patriots in the tenth round in 1988. Lossow never appeared in an NFL game.

If he wanted to, Smith could've transferred to a bigger high school in the suburbs and received more college exposure. South is one of the seven schools in the Minneapolis City Conference and is the furthest thing from a football powerhouse. But that idea never interested him.

"I take a lot of pride in being from Minneapolis," Smith said. "A lot of kids will transfer out to the suburbs because they think they can’t make it and things like that. I just wanted to show that it is possible. I went to a high school that never won a playoff game and didn’t have lights until a few years ago. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it just matters what you do with it when you get there. The opportunities may be more slim than out in the suburbs, but you just gotta go earn it. I’m trying to prove that and maybe help the city conference compete more in the future."

He isn't the only one. If Smith is picked, it'll be the second straight NFL draft featuring a player from the city conference. Before he starred at the University of Minnesota and was drafted in the fifth round last year, Tyler Johnson played his high school ball at North. He went on to win the Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a rookie. Smith has a good chance to join Johnson and Washburn's Ra'Shede Hageman (2014 second round) as the only draft picks from the conference this century.

"Seeing Tyler was pretty unreal," Smith said. "The first time I went against Tyler was in eighth grade and I could tell back then that he was a legit athlete. We competed all throughout high school. I didn’t get the chance to go against him in college, but what he did at Minnesota was unreal. Putting on for the city like he did, he kind of set the standard for guys like me coming out in the next few years."

It would be "really cool" to stay home and play for the Vikings

If there's a team that loves drafting athletic, high-upside pass rushers in the third or fourth round, it's the Minnesota Vikings. In the past 15 years, they've landed Ray Edwards, Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, and Danielle Hunter (218.5 combined sacks with the Vikings) in that range. They went that route with D.J. Wonnum in the fourth last year, and with six selections in those two rounds this year — and a major need for additional pass rushers — they're in prime position to do so again.

Smith said he spoke to two Vikings scouts at the Senior Bowl and "it went well."

"They seemed like good people, got to talk ball a little bit," he said. "That’s about it for anyone in the Vikings organization. I had a medical meeting with Eric Sugarman, the Vikings’ head trainer, just going through past injuries, I think that was set up through the combine. Nothing too much, but I think they do a great job with defensive linemen with Coach [Andre] Patterson. Obviously Danielle Hunter is a monster and you could go down the list of players that [Patterson] has turned into really good players. I respect a lot of what the Vikings have right now."

Smith grew up cheering for the Vikings and fell in love with football while watching players like Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen, and it would be a great story if he were picked by his hometown team. But with 32 teams in the league, it's not something he can allow himself to think about too much.

"That would be really cool," he said. "Being from Minneapolis, having everyone here, not having to restart somewhere would be super cool. But you know, it’s not in my hands. Sometimes I wish it was. It is what it is and that’s probably why it’s so exciting. You have to prepare for everything."

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