Steelers 6th-rounder Sutton Smith: ‘My path is to fight’
Sutton Smith played football at Northern Illinois like he was a Summa Cum Laude student trying to graduate after only a handful of semesters.
He packed a lot of production into a short amount of time.
Smith had a combined 29 sacks and 56.5 tackles for loss in his redshirt and junior seasons, numbers most college defensive ends would hope to accumulate in a four-year career.
With one year of eligibility remaining, there wasn’t much left for Smith to accomplish, so he declared for the NFL Draft, and the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him Saturday in the sixth round.
The question is whether Smith, who dominated in a non-Power 5 conference, can transfer his skills to the highest level of football.
Smith was one of three players from the Mid-American Conference drafted by the Steelers of their nine picks, so they apparently believe he can.
“I don’t care if they are MAC. I don’t care if they come from Egypt,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said moments after Smith was selected 175th overall. “If they are good football players, we will use them. So MAC, SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, it doesn’t bother me. What sells me is what’s on film.”
What the Steelers saw was a pass rusher who had just one major-college scholarship offer when he left high school in Missouri yet developed into a two-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Smith totaled 14 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore, then showed the same passion for ending up in the opposing backfield when he produced 15 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss as a junior.
Sure, Smith dominated his conference, but he also showed up on the stat sheet when Northern Illinois ventured outside MAC play. In his final two seasons, Northern Illinois played five teams from Power 5 conferences in the regular season: Florida State, Utah and Iowa in 2018, and Nebraska and Boston College in 2017. Smith had at least one sack in each game and totaled seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss against those schools.
“Basically, I’m trying to be the biggest problem an offense can go up against,” Smith said. “I just try and go out there, play as fast as I can and never give up. Even if the play is like 40 yards away from me, I’m going to try to track it down and just play as fast as I can.”
Because Smith’s 6-foot, 234-pound frame is slight for a college defensive end or even a converted outside linebacker, he was moved to inside linebacker at the Senior Bowl.
“You got to see him at a higher level at another position, so that was encouraging,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said.
Smith’s 4.69 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was unspectacular, but he showed agility in other events: the three-cone shuttle and 20-yard short shuttle. His 6.75 time in the three-cone drill was the best of any linebacker or edge rusher. His 4.32 time in the short shuttle was No. 7 among edge rushers.
“Those two things tell us a little bit about their quickness,” Butler said. “But you still have to read and react.”
Smith said he expects the Steelers to use him at inside linebacker. Butler, though, said Smith will be given the chance to play outside, with special teams being his primary destination in training camp and the preseason.
“He’s probably going to help (special teams coach) Danny Smith more than he helps me early,” Butler said. “The way linebackers make NFL teams is they come in and try to make themselves very valuable on special teams and build themselves another year to try to learn what is going on with the defense.
“Once they do that, then they compete for starting jobs.”
Smith followed a similar script at Northern Illinois. He was an understudy as a redshirt freshman, then spent the following two seasons playing like he was trying to make up for lost time.
“My path is to fight, and that’s all I know how to do is fight,” Smith said. “I’m going to do everything I can to prove to people that I can be an NFL player, that I can do whatever they need me to do. I’m not going to be selfish. I’m just going to try and help the team in any way that I can.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .