NFL Nation: Yawin Smallwood

Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker Yawin Smallwood has reason to play with a chip on his shoulder, but he's more worried about just playing football, period.

Some scouts considered Smallwood a second-round talent going into the 2013 college football season at Connecticut. His stock, however, took a tumble when he posted a 5.01-second 40-yard dash time at the NFL combine trying to run through a hamstring injury.

Smallwood left school early and ended up a seventh-round draft pick. He signed a four-year deal that included a$45,896 signing bonus and $2.2 million in base salaries.

"Right now, I can't really do anything about it, so it is what it is,'' Smallwood said of his draft stock falling. "It doesn't matter which round you get drafted in when you're on that football field, so I'm just going to do what I do.

"I feel like the only thing that I lost was money, really. And I don't play the game for money. I play the game because I love this game. This is what I've always done. So I'm just going to keep coming out here and competing.''

The 6-foot-4, 236-pound Smallwood has a very thick build and looks like someone capable of knocking an opponent back a few yards on every play. He's playing inside linebacker and could find his way onto the field this season, which is likely to begin with a contribution on special teams. One of the projected starters at inside linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, is still dealing with a knee issue and won't do much this offseason. That opens up an opportunity for Smallwood and fellow rookie Marquis Spruill to get additional reps.

Smallwood talked about the aspect of his game he hopes to improve.

"There's not really one thing,'' he said. "I'm just trying to get better every day. It's the NFL. These guys are all pros. These guys have been playing many years now so they know what they're trying to do. If I had to say anything, I'd say just make sure I'm the best guy in the film room making sure I get everything down, making sure I'm where I'm supposed to be."
As the Atlanta Falcons get ready for rookie minicamp on Friday, one can imagine what's going through Yawin Smallwood's mind.

Here's a kid many scouts considered a second-round talent going into the 2013 football season at Connecticut. Eight months later, the 6-foot-2, 246-pound linebacker had to wonder if leaving school early was a good idea after not hearing his name through the first six rounds.

[+] EnlargeYawin Smallwood
Steve Slade/UConn AthleticsYawin Smallwood was a proven playmaker at UConn, finishing with 332 tackles in three season.
Eventually, Smallwood was selected by the Falcons in the seventh round, the draft's 253rd overall pick out of 256 and a compensatory selection, at that. Smallwood admitted shedding tears after receiving the call.

Hank Hughes, Smallwood's former defensive coordinator at UConn, had empathy for his former player.

"He's a good football player and can play with the best of them," Hughes said. "Guys that are great players go late some time and other guys jump up that are not. You can never tell.

"Certainly measurables are a big deal. And with him having a bad 40-yard dash and pulling up at the combine, that hurt him."

Hughes was referring to the hamstring injury Smallwood suffered doing a different drill at the February combine, an injury that led to him posting a 5.01-second 40 time. His draft status obviously plummeted due to the misfortune.

The Falcons might end up getting the draft's biggest steal because of it.

"He will show that he's a good football player when he gets to Atlanta," Hughes said. "They are not going to be disappointed with the guy that they drafted. They're going to get a good football player who is going to be athletic in all avenues.

"I think he's good run defender. He needs to be a little bit stronger and stouter at the point of attack. He is a good pass-coverage guy and he's a good blitzer. He has the quality of being able to do a lot of things. He's not just a first- and second-down player. He's a guy who can get out there and cover guys."

Under Hughes, Smallwood played in a system which combined both 3-4 and 4-3 elements, meaning he'll be ready for the multiplicity the Falcons intend to use out of their 3-4 base this coming season.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he plans to use Smallwood as an inside linebacker and understands the rookie will play faster than the 40 time indicated. Smallwood has the reputation for being a big hitter and could work his way onto the field sooner than expected. He had 332 tackles in three seasons at UConn to go with 9.5 sacks and 27 tackles for losses.

Hughes pointed to the game-sealing, 59-yard interception return for a touchdown Smallwood had against Temple this past season as evidence of his athleticism.

"He's got some savvy to him," Hughes said of Smallwood. "In 2012 against Maryland, he had a monster game. And at the end of last year's Temple game, he had that pick-six off a really good quarterback. He took that one to the house and didn't get chased down.

"He played a ton for us. And he's quite a player."
Timmy JerniganMelina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State DT Timmy Jernigan was viewed as a first-round talent in early mock drafts.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears knocked out a need at cornerback on Thursday in Round 1 of the NFL draft with the selection of Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller, and on Friday the team will stick to the plan of replenishing the defense in Rounds 2 and 3.

Despite perhaps more pressing needs at safety and linebacker, the Bears took a versatile cornerback in the first round. What's encouraging for the next two rounds is that this year's draft class is so deep, the Bears could still find players in need areas capable of contributing significantly as rookies.

[+] EnlargeEd Reynolds
AP Photo/Tony AvelarStanford safety Ed Reynolds makes sense for the Bears in the third round.
The Bears pick 51st and 82nd overall in the next two rounds, and with options aplenty on Day 2, I'd use the second-round pick on the best defensive tackle available since that position represents the best value. I'm more partial to Florida State's Timmy Jernigan (I don't care about the alleged failed drug test) or Notre Dame's Louis Nix than a boom-or-bust prospect such as Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman.

Then, in the third round, I'd look to add competition safety with a long, rangy prospect such as Stanford's Ed Reynolds.

Looking at the players still on the board, the Bears have several options available at defensive tackle in Jernigan, Notre Dame's Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Hageman, and perhaps even later in the draft with players such as LSU's Ego Ferguson, South Carolina's Kelcy Quarles and Princeton's Caraun Reid.

At safety, the Bears should strongly consider Reynolds. He picked off seven passes over the past two years and has an NFL pedigree, from his father, Ed Sr., who played linebacker in the NFL for 10 years. Dion Bailey of Southern Cal could be another option for the Bears at safety, perhaps in the third round, and Wyoming's Marqueston Huff is a potential pick even later (six double-digit tackle games; 20 stops against Utah State).

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Linebacker options are abundant, too. Brigham Young's Kyle Van Noy racked up 62 tackles for lost yardage over four years in college; he projects as a Sam linebacker in Chicago's scheme. Florida State's Christian Jones and Telvin Smith are also athletic possibilities for perhaps later in the draft.

Keep an eye out for Connecticut's Yawin Smallwood, who posted 332 career tackles and 9.5 sacks in college and met with the Bears at the NFL combine. New Bears defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni is familiar with Smallwood, having served as head coach at Connecticut from 2011 to '13. Pasqualoni told the Hartford Courant, "[What] I really like about [Smallwood], which I think is a strength, is that he doesn't process what he sees. He just goes. Some guys look at it and they hesitate, then they go. He's not a process guy. He's a read-and-react guy, which is a big part of that position."

Perhaps Chicago general manager Phil Emery will pull one of his usual surprise picks and grab an offensive player. That wouldn't be too much of a stretch, because the benefit of a class this deep is that the Bears can legitimately find ways to address needs throughout all seven rounds.

Emery has been high on Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, who runs a 4.6-second 40-yard dash and made 106 catches last season.
At the time Connecticut middle linebacker Yawin Smallwood stepped to the podium for his media session at the NFL combine, the only team he'd met with up to that point was the Chicago Bears.

That's fine by Smallwood.

"It would be an honor [to play for the Bears]," he said. "They have a great tradition of having great Hall of Fame linebackers over there, so I would be so happy to play over there. But I'm just going to show what I can do and see what happens from there."

Well, the results during on-field testing at Lucas Oil Stadium didn't go quite the way Smallwood would have wanted. He bench pressed 225 pounds 18 times, and ran a 5.01-second 40-yard dash after pulling up with a hamstring injury. Smallwood also posted a vertical jump of 36.5 inches and a broad jump of 9 feet.

He'll receive another opportunity to better those results next month at Connecticut's Pro Day, but apparently the Bears liked what they saw on film of Smallwood, who declared for the draft after his junior season. Smallwood racked up a team-high 118 tackles as a junior, and 120 as a sophomore, with 15 of those stops going for lost yardage, in addition to producing four sacks and forcing two fumbles. It doesn't hurt that he's played for new Bears defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni.

Pasqualoni spent a little more than two seasons (2011-13) as head coach at Connecticut. Going into last season with Smallwood being named to the Bednarik and Butkus Award preseason watch lists, Pasqualoni said told the Hartford Courant that one thing, "I really like about him, which I think is a strength, is that he doesn't process what he sees. He just goes. Some guys look at it and they hesitate, then they go. He's not a process guy. He's a read-and-react guy, which is a big part of the position, too."

Asked what the Bears liked about him, Smallwood said, "I have a high motor. I make plays out there on the football field. I rack up a lot of tackles. That's what they need on defense."

There's no disputing that with the Bears coming off their worst defensive season in franchise history. At this point, however, it's unknown what the club's level of interest in Smallwood really is.

Smallwood (6-2 , 246 pounds) played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at UConn for Pasqualoni and is confident he's capable of handling what would be required of him at that position in the NFL.

At the combine, Smallwood, a former high school quarterback, wanted to show "that I'm an athletic Mike. I feel like I can cover the tight ends, the fast tight ends now. I feel that I can stop the run, make plays out there on the football field. I'm able to play with the big boys. The only knock that I had was that I didn't really play any big teams in college. I feel like teams are going to see once I get on the field that I can compete at a high football level."

Smallwood is projected to be taken anywhere from the second to fourth round of the draft. If selected, Smallwood could be in competition with Jonathan Bostic, Shea McClellin and veteran D.J. Williams, provided he's brought back in 2014, for the starting job in the middle.

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