It is mid-morning on April 4, and Geno Smith has just said goodbye to Chip Kelly, having spent much of the previous day with the Eagles' coach and his staff. And as Smith stands at the US Airways counter in the Philadelphia International Airport, he's hemorrhaging money.
This is an article from the April 15, 2013 issue
That is not to say that his NFL stock is slipping—that a harshly negative scouting report released three days earlier by Pro Football Weekly will necessarily cost him millions. No, it is to say that the 22-year-old quarterback out of West Virginia is actually shedding cash. Informed by an effusive ticket agent named Charlene that it will cost him $25 to check his Tumi suitcase, Smith plunged a fist into the right, front pocket of his khaki trousers, and the act of withdrawing that paw has unleashed a shower of crumpled bills and wadded-up receipts onto the floor.
"Look at this guy throwing money all over the place," jokes Charlene, who exclaims, while looking over Smith's driver's license, "October 10th—that's my son's birthday. And mine's October 1st. Libras in the house!" As they bump fists, she asks, "Who did you say you're with?"
Smith hasn't said—partly because he's modest and partly because he isn't with anyone quite yet. This Philly trip is one of three visits to NFL teams in four days, bookended by Kansas City and Buffalo. And he'll spend time with at least that many more clubs before traveling to New York City for the April 25 draft.
The journey, which Smith has dubbed his World Tour, is a reward of sorts: He is an exceptional athlete on the cusp of the next level. But it's also an exercise in intrigue and, in some cases, futility, as teams that would seem to have little interest in drafting him profess having such an interest, with the aim of ginning up interest from teams who might be inclined to trade up for Smith.
After putting up sensational statistics in his three years as a starter for the Mountaineers—he passed for a career 11,658 yards and 98 touchdowns against 21 interceptions—the 6'2", 218-pound Smith finds himself in a confusing limbo. Yes, he's likely to be the first quarterback off the board. But that distinction, like dating Kim Kardashian or winning the NIT, has lost much of its cachet in 2013. No offense to Smith, USC's Matt Barkley, N.C. State's Mike Glennon, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib, Florida State's EJ Manuel or Oklahoma's Landry Jones, but NFL personnel types cite this as the most underwhelming QB crop in years. Certainly it appears to be a marked drop-off from '12, when Andrew Luck (Colts), Robert Griffin III (Redskins) and Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins) were taken in the first eight picks. Want depth? Russell Wilson, who led the Seahawks further into the playoffs than any of the above, lasted until the third round, and four other rookies got starts.
This year the Chiefs hold the No. 1 choice. But rather than anointing Geno Smith his signal-caller of the future, first-year coach Andy Reid traded last month for the 49ers' Alex Smith, then signed former Saint and longtime Drew Brees backup Chase Daniel to a relatively lucrative three-year, $10 million deal. (True, Daniel has attempted only nine passes in four seasons—but he's completed seven of them!)
The quarterback-starved Raiders (No. 3) and Bills (No. 8) also took long looks at Smith, including attending his pro day on March 14, when he completed 60 of 64 passes. Then they cut deals with unproven veterans Matt Flynn and Kevin Kolb, respectively. But the unkindest cut came from Pro Football Weekly draft analyst Nolan Nawrocki, who took a flamethrower to Smith's reputation with a viciously negative scouting report that was posted online on April 1.
Nawrocki was not fooling. He knocked Smith's "average field vision and coverage recognition" and forced throws. The report chided him for taking "unnecessary sacks" and not feeling pressure well. "Not an elusive scrambler. Shaky lower-body mechanics." So what if he ran a 4.59 40 at the combine, faster than any other passer? Smith was cursed with "pin legs and bad pocket posture."
Many of the criticisms of Smith's on-field play are reasonable—but not all of them. Nawrocki is a widely respected reporter who has been criticized in the past when his football analysis has ventured into the realm of psychoanalysis. Two years ago he raised eyebrows with his takedown of Auburn's Cam Newton, whom he excoriated for his "fake smile" and "selfish, me-first makeup." Newton, he concluded, "does not command respect from teammates and will always struggle to win a locker room."
"When I read what [Nawrocki] wrote about Cam [who nonetheless went to Carolina with the No. 1 pick], I thought, This guy's got balls," says one veteran NFL scout. "He was pretty accurate. But with some of the stuff about Geno, he's way off base. I thought it was irresponsible and not accurate."
Not surprisingly, it has been Nawrocki's attacks on Smith's work ethic, commitment, intelligence and passion for football that have generated the most controversy—and pushback.
"Nonchalant field presence," the report goes on. "Does not command respect from teammates and cannot inspire. Mild practice demeanor—no urgency. Not committed or focused—marginal work ethic. Interviewed poorly at the combine and did not show an understanding of concepts on the white board. Not a student of the game...."
Not a student of the game? "I was shocked by that," says Jake Spavital, who was Smith's position coach last year in Morgantown. Now a co--offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, Spavital wondered briefly whether Nawrocki's report might be an April Fools' Day prank.
Says Alex Hammond, West Virginia's director of football operations, "I remember leaving the offices at 1 a.m. after the Baylor game"—Smith had completed 45 of 51 passes for 656 yards and eight touchdowns with no interceptions in a 70--63 win—"and Geno was still there, sitting in a dark room, watching video," looking for big plays that he'd left on the table.
"Geno will see the safeties spinning down," says Tavon Austin, a slot receiver who played four years with Smith in Morgantown, "and know [that a blitz] is coming from the direction they're rotating away from. He's smart."
And while he didn't return SI's call, Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen tweeted one day after the report, "Geno's the hardest practicing QB & most gifted student of the game I've coached."
He doesn't work through his progressions? Never? All of his 42 touchdown passes last season—against six picks—went to his primary receiver? Hmm.
Did not show an understanding of concepts on the whiteboard? "I was in there when our coaches had [Smith] on the board," says one AFC director of player personnel. "He wasn't good. He was outstanding. He was a maestro on that board. He was phenomenal."
Smith seems more puzzled by the report than pissed off. "If you talk to anyone who knows me," he says, "I don't think you'll find anyone who could honestly say I'm not dedicated to football." He makes this observation en route to the Philly airport, from the backseat of an SUV driven by an Eagles front-office factotum. Cruising over the Platt Memorial Bridge, they look down on a gritty, industrial scene: belching smokestacks, refinery tanks, a wastewater treatment plant.
"All this can be yours," a passenger tells Smith, who smiles. He took in some of the city's more refined sights the night before, when Coach Kelly and several assistants brought him and a few other prospects to the tony Capital Grille on Chestnut Street.
One of Smith's jobs on this World Tour is to embrace the uncertainty. "I'm taking on this process like it's a practice or a game," he says. "You dress sharp. You come in eager, wide-eyed—all the things coaches would want to see from a franchise quarterback."
Whether or not it's for one of the teams on the Tour, Smith will play somewhere next year, an inevitability that his mother, Tracey Sellers recognizes.
My entire life," says Smith, "she's always told me, 'You're so talented! You can do so many things!'"
We were not the Huxtables," says Sellers, "but we've done our absolute best."
Sellers had Eugene when she was 17, living in Miami. "You made an immature decision," said her mother, Mosetta (whose nephew Melvin Bratton starred at running back for the Hurricanes before a career-altering knee injury in the 1988 national title game). "But we'll get through this. We're moving forward."
Tracey stayed in school through college thanks to a huge assist from Mosetta, who supported her daughter without trying to replace her. "I still had to be responsible and accountable for my son," recalls Tracey, who now works as a business consultant and runs a Dade County nonprofit called Parents Without Partners. "She made me step up to the plate."
For the first six years of his life—until Tracey had a son, Geonte, with her current husband—Geno was the center of her universe. Determined to give him every opportunity to succeed, she lavished him with books, educational toys and attention. Among his interests was drawing, and inspired by the work of his godsister Kiyondra Talley, who now works with the singer Rihanna, he turned himself into an artist.
"He got to be so good," says the 17-year-old Geonte, "that he could draw cartoons better than the original cartoonist."
Yes, he was cultivating a robust life of the mind, but Geno occasionally ventured outdoors. Tracey had remained friends with his father, Geno Smith Jr., and after bargaining with him—"He's got a school project, he needs to be back by five"—she'd release the boy to his father and Uncle Antwan, who would take him to a nearby park, drilling him on passing and footwork.
In seventh grade Geno submitted his drawings and was admitted to Norland Middle School's arts-intensive magnet program. One of his teachers, Linda Atkinson, told The New York Times that Smith was adept at capturing the subtleties and emotions of the human face, especially his characters' eyes.
"That's what I started drawing first," says Smith, "because eyes are the hardest. Lips and noses are no big deal, but everyone's eyes are different. There's a lot going on. You've got shadowing, lashes, reflection of light coming off the eye itself...."
Smith's eyes—his ability to recognize more than his peers, and recognize it more quickly—helped him excel in football. He still recalls the thrill he felt as a 12-year-old, the first time he changed a play at the line of scrimmage. "I checked off into a slant," he says. "We scored, and I was thinking, I could do this every time."
During his junior season at Miramar High, he nearly did do it every time during a game against Blanche Ely, whose marquee player was a defensive back named Patrick Peterson, a future All-America at LSU who went fifth in the 2011 draft to the Cardinals and has made the last two Pro Bowls. Ely blitzed incessantly, "So we checked off into slants all night," recalls Geno, who torched Peterson and the Tigers for four touchdowns in a 39--14 romp.
Smith's head never got too big, even after he was named the Class 6A player of the year as a senior. "Once you walk in the door of this house," says Tracey, "there are no celebrities. Everyone does their own laundry."
At West Virginia he started as a sophomore for the late Bill Stewart, who was succeeded after the 2010 season by Holgorsen, a former Mike Leach disciple who'd spent the previous decade coordinating high-octane offenses at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State. While Stewart's scheme had its up-tempo elements, it was still a crude, simple instrument compared with Holgorsen's highly evolved iteration of the Air Raid, and it would take Smith more than half the season to get the hang of it.
When the light finally went on for him, it was blinding for opposing defenses. The Mountaineers won four of their last five games in 2011, clinching the Big East title and earning a bid to the Orange Bowl, where Smith threw six touchdowns and was named MVP in a 70--33 dismantling of Clemson. He kept that momentum rolling the following season. In attendance at Milan Puskar Stadium for that 70--63 win over Baylor—mouths agape—were the West Virginia athletic director and his son, who also happens to play quarterback.
If I could be reincarnated, Oliver Luck remembers telling his son, Andrew, whose Colts had a bye that weekend, "I'd come back as a high school senior running one of these offenses. It just looks like so much fun!"
That fun ended abruptly in Lubbock last Oct. 13. After dashing to a 5--0 start and a No. 5 ranking, Smith & Co. were spanked by Texas Tech 49--14. A 55--14 drubbing awaited the following week at Kansas State, and then three straight losses in shootouts against TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. West Virginia finished the season ranked ninth in scoring with 39.5 points per game—but there was no hiding their 114th-ranked scoring defense, which yielded barely a point less per outing. In the final game of his career, in the wind and snow at Yankee Stadium, site of the Pinstripe Bowl, Smith took two safeties and lost a fumble (he recovered two others) in losing 38--14 to Syracuse.
Nawrocki mentions that game in his report, bludgeoning Smith for his lack of pocket presence and ball security. And you know what? says Geno. The guy has a point. Smith lost 32 fumbles in his career. He realizes that he needs to develop better awareness, to get rid of balls before he gets hit. He knows he needs to clean up his footwork.
"It's not like I'm sitting here blind," he says, sprawled in a chair at the airport, his flight to Buffalo still an hour away. "I know the areas I need to improve, and I know how to improve them. My best football is far, far ahead of me."
Pro Football Weekly predicts that Smith "will be overdrafted, and struggle to produce against NFL defensive complexities."
But a different publication foresees a brighter outcome. "Your talents and skills are recognized now like never before. All of the hard work you've put in begins to pay off." That's the forecast on CafeAstrology.com, not just for Smith, but for all Libras in 2013.
Who you gonna believe?
"OFTEN OUT OF SYNC WITH RECEIVERS.
... DOES NOT FEEL PRESSURE WELL.
... NOT AN ELUSIVE SCRAMBLER.
... SHAKY LOWER-BODY MECHANICS.
... PIN LEGS AND BAD POCKET POSTURE.
... NOT A STUDENT OF THE GAME.
... NONCHALANT FIELD PRESENCE.
... NO URGENCY.
... NOT COMMITTED OR FOCUSED.
... MARGINAL WORK ETHIC.
... MINIMAL MUSCLE DEFINITION OR STRENGTH.
... GLARING BALL SECURITY ISSUES.
... NEEDED TO BE CODDLED IN COLLEGE.
... CANNOT HANDLE HARD COACHING.
... COULD DRAIN ENERGY FROM A QB ROOM.
... WILL BE OVERDRAFTED."
—PRO FOOTBALL WEEKLY, APRIL 1
"FORCES THROWS AND DOES NOT WORK THROUGH PROGRESSIONS.
... A GIMMICK, OVERHYPED PRODUCT OF THE SYSTEM.
... LACKING THE FOOTBALL SAVVY, WORK HABITS AND FOCUS TO CEMENT A STARTING JOB."
"APPROACHED OFF-SEASON TRAINING AS IF HE HAS ALREADY ARRIVED.
... AVERAGE FIELD VISION AND COVERAGE RECOGNITION.
... A CROSS BETWEEN AKILI SMITH AND AARON BROOKS."
Ready to Play the Slots?
One NFL team may make a first-round gamble on Geno Smith's diminutive Mountaineers target, Tavon Austin, who dazzled at the combine and has teams rethinking the value of a game-breaker
Deep and just a tad dull: That's the 2013 draft class, with its slew of highly ranked offensive linemen and its dearth of potential superstars at quarterback. Or at least so goes the commentary among scouts and coaches—until the name of Tavon Austin comes up. Which is happening more and more frequently as April 25 draws nigh.
"Now there's a guy that makes you go, Wow!" says NFL.com draft expert Gil Brandt of Geno Smith's West Virginia teammate, whose stock has been on a steep rise since the combine despite his slight stature: 5'8" and 174 pounds. "He's got the heart of a lion," says Brandt, "and he can hurt a defense so many different ways."
Listed on the Mountaineers' roster as a wide receiver, Austin did more damage from the inside, slot-receiver spot, though it wasn't unusual to see him line up wide, then gash the defense on a jet sweep. And as his senior season unspooled, coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff got more creative in finding ways to get Austin the ball. Against Oklahoma on Nov. 17, they put him in the backfield, then looked on, slack-jawed, as Austin eviscerated the Sooners' defense for 572 all-purpose yards, 344 of them rushing on just 21 carries.
He is a receiver, running back, returner, game-breaker and one-man momentum swing. In at least one sense, the product of Baltimore's Dunbar High is also a pioneer. The most effective slot receivers in the league—Wes Welker, Victor Cruz, Danny Amendola—were all undrafted free agents. So one of the questions hovering over this draft is, How early will teams select a player with Austin's unique skill set?
Earlier than ever, says Phil Savage, former G.M. of the Browns and now executive director of the Senior Bowl. "As the spread offense trickles uphill from the college game," he says, so-called space players—hybrid threats like the Seahawks' Percy Harvin and the Packers' Randall Cobb—"have bigger and bigger roles in the game."
Austin was knocking on the door of the first round before reporting to the February combine, where he was superb in positional drills—he has excellent hands—and ran a 4.34 40. (One scout told SI that he hand-timed Austin under 4.3.) Last season, in an effort to raise the profile of the Baltimore Burner, Holgorsen got in the habit of referring to him as "the fastest man in college football." Damned if he wasn't right. Since the combine, Austin has generated more buzz than Jennifer Lawrence—who, at 5'8", would stand eye to eye with him—and most likely climbed into the middle of round 1.
Can he break into the Top 10? Not unless he suddenly gets bigger. The game is changing, but not so rapidly that NFL people can gamble so much on a player so small, even if his ankle-snapping cuts allow him to elude big hits. "I haven't missed a game in eight years," Austin pointed out, politely, at the combine, "so I think my durability should be pretty good.... I'd like to be two inches taller, but it ain't happening."
Nor does it matter. "His game tape is incredible, his combine workout was freakish, and he ran the fastest 40 I've ever timed," said the above-mentioned scout. "None of this is hype. He's going in the first 15."
Which quarterback could be the sleeper of the 2013 NFL draft? Try this guy. For more on Syracuse's Ryan Nassib, read Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback at SI.com/MMQB