Raiders cornerback Sean Smith was a pretty good receiver way back when. One heck of a running back, too. That’s how he earned a scholarship to Utah, as an All-American scoring machine for Pasadena’s Blair High.
The Utes recruited Smith as a running back but eventually focused him on receiver to capitalize on an athletic 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame. The shuffle didn’t produce much and, after a falling out with a coach, Smith was moved across the line of scrimmage for good.
That’s a major move with just three years college eligibility and NFL dreams, a last resort that changed his career for good.
After just two years at cornerback he was a third-team All-American, entering the workforce as Miami's second-round pick. Smith had seven years gainful employment in Miami and Kansas City, before joining the Raiders this offseason on a four-year, $38 million contract.
His playing background brought him to this point.
“I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t play offense,” Smith told CSNBayArea.com last week. “Switching from receiver to corner, it’s crazy how much that can help you.”
Thinking like a receiver has made him an excellent cover corner. He picked up the position’s mental aspects in a snap, which allowed him to flourish quickly. Smith offered some insight into his pre-snap routine and how he hones in on what the receiver might do based on his experience playing offense.
Smith said he quickly eliminates possibilities on the route tree based on formation and the receiver’s positioning.
“You start breaking things down, and then analyze them through the defense we’re running and where my help is going to be,” Smith said. “I’ve now crossed a bunch of options off the list and, before the snap, I’m confident he’ll run one of a small number of routes. I’ll focus on defending those and react to anything else. The majority of the time, it ends up being the routes you expect.”
Smith takes pride in his football acumen. Predicting routes comes easier than most, but Smith still spends significant time in the film room identifying tendencies of specific opponents and how to best defend them with his size and skill set.
Smith’s size and athleticism offers a solid baseline, but a cornerback’s technique, an effort refined over time in college and the pros. That’s when he believes the position switch was truly complete.
“I played boundary corner and in college, you only get maybe three routes,” Smith said. “I’m a big guy, and I could press and take things away. When I got to the NFL and the boss tells you to play in the middle, you really have to learn the nuances of playing cornerback.”
Smith played safe early in his NFL days, often worried about getting beat. He gained confidence from experience and detail work, and started playing more aggressive.
It hasn’t produced a high interception count – he has just 10 in seven seasons – but has developed an excellent cover man. Smith’s completion percentage allowed now hovers in the low 50s and the passer rating against him hasn’t been above 86 since 2011. Getting over on Smith is hard work. He’s become a reliable player who can defend all receiver types.
The Raiders aggressively sought his services this offseason, considering him an excellent scheme fit. They were also hoping to add a leader to the position group, and got one who sets a solid example for a young corps.
“I’m just trying to get the guys to trust what they see, and don’t be afraid to get beat,” Smith said. “If you believe in yourself and your reads, you’ll play well.”