The seismic shift that turned the NFL into a passing league has made it imperative that elite defenses feature impact playmakers on the edges. Pass rushers with the speed, quickness and athleticism to create chaos are valued at a premium by scouts and coaches.
In 2011, the need to upgrade their respective defenses prompted the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers to nab pass rushers at the top of the draft. The Broncos grabbed Von Miller with the second overall pick, while the 49ers picked up Smith with the seventh overall selection. Both players have been sensational performers since their arrival as ballyhooed prospects, leading their respective teams in sacks and disruptive plays over the past two seasons.
Rapoport: Week 16 game rankings
What's the best game on the Week 16 slate? The worst? Ian Rapoport provides a pecking order in his Rap Sheet Rankings. More ...
Miller has quickly emerged as one of the top outside linebackers in the NFL, despite moving from defensive end to strong-side linebacker as a pro. He has tallied 27.5 quarterback sacks, eight forced fumbles and one interception in 29 games. More importantly, he has keyed a defensive transformation that has seen the Broncos become a top-five unit in 2012.
Smith has been just as impressive during his first two seasons, collecting 33.5 sacks, one safety, one interception and five forced fumbles. He's currently tied (with Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt) for the league lead with 19.5 sacks in 2012. His rapid development as a top-tier pass rusher has helped lift the 49ers' defense, which is ranked second overall.
Given the immediate impact Miller and Smith have both made on the NFL as young players, I thought it would be a good time to match them up in five categories and determine which second-year pro is the superior player. Here are my findings:
Smith's emergence as a top-tier pass rusher is a testament to his remarkable athleticism and physical tools. He simply overwhelms blockers on the edge with his unique combination of size, speed and quickness. Measuring 6-foot-4 and weighing 256 pounds, Smith comes off the ball with cat-like quickness, yet possesses the agility, lateral speed and strength to run around or through blockers with an array of rush moves. In addition, Smith has shown the ability to stunt and loop from his 3-4 rush end spot, showcasing his impressive mobility and change-of-direction skills in traffic.
Miller is one of the fastest players I've ever seen coming off the ball. He explodes out of his stance with a remarkable first-step quickness that reminds me of the late Derrick Thomas. Miller is smooth and fluid in his movement, and shows exceptional body control when rounding the corner on pass-rush attempts. He also displays outstanding body control as he changes directions when dropping into coverage. Miller's ability to move nimbly in space is certainly impressive, especially considering the fact that he spent the majority of his collegiate career at Texas A&M with his hand in the dirt.
Smith comes off the ball with outstanding initial quickness. He shows the rare ability to reach top speed in just a few steps; that instant burst makes him nearly impossible to block on the edge. Smith also routinely converts his speed rushes into power moves. Attacking blockers with a mix of speed, leverage and power, Smith is able to overwhelm big, physical offensive tackles with force, leading him to collect sacks in an impressive fashion.
Miller comes off the ball like a missile. He shows great timing and anticipation of the snap count, and explodes past defenders with astounding first-step quickness. Miller combines those traits with a closing burst that is unrivaled in the NFL. When I look at a sizzle reel of Miller's sacks from the past two years, I'm blown away by his combination of speed, quickness and acceleration. He routinely chases down quarterbacks from the back side, and his signature tomahawk chop produces turnovers in critical moments.
In less than two years, Smith has developed into a polished technician as a pass rusher. He is at his best when relying on his quickness and athleticism to blow past blockers on speed rushes, but he has developed a series of counter moves to complement his favorite tactic. Smith routinely slips inside offensive tackles when they overreact to his upfield move by planting and executing an aggressive arm-over move to the inside. He also flashes the ability to bull rush and "butt and jerk" blockers, utilizing his superior length and body control to get free off the edge. Although Smith remains a work in progress, he is a talented edge player with a knack for getting to the quarterback.
Miller is one of the most natural pass rushers to enter the NFL in some time. He has an unbelievable combination of physical tools that makes him extremely difficult to block off the edge. Miller possesses the quickest first step in the NFL; his ability to reach top speed within three steps makes him nearly impossible to keep away from the quarterback. Miller combines those skills with a keen sense of timing and anticipation that enables him to exploit undisciplined blockers in pass protection. Miller will use a "dip and rip" move to blow past blockers or take a few steps upfield before taking a hard plant and executing a rip move to the inside for a sack. In addition, he will mix in a few bull rushes to take advantage of offensive tackles overreacting to his superior speed and quickness. Given Miller's exceptional skill set and his technical prowess, it's hard to find a more complete pass rusher in the NFL.
The fact that the 49ers rarely blitz is a testament to the remarkable rush skills of Smith. He routinely defeats double teams on the edges, and his ability to penetrate the pocket forces quarterbacks to hurry throws to the perimeter. Smith also shows a knack for dislodging the ball from quarterbacks with a tomahawk chop. He utilizes his exceptional arm length to knock the ball away, showing a terrific feel for creating turnovers as a pass rusher. With five forced fumbles in two seasons, Smith certainly has the capacity to affect the game as a playmaker off the edge.
Miller is an exceptional hunter off the corner, boasting an enviable combination of speed, quickness and burst. He runs past offensive tackles in isolated matchups, and is adept at working through double teams or chips in the backfield. More importantly, Miller has a feel for separating quarterbacks from the ball, which is indicative of his ball awareness and strip-sack skills. (He has six forced fumbles in 14 games this season.) I believe Miller is one of the best in the business at wreaking havoc off the edges.
Smith is a relentless, high-motor playmaker, always in pursuit of the ball from his rush end position, which routinely puts him in the mix when ball carriers are gang tackled downfield. With his fanatical effort and boundless enthusiasm, Smith is undoubtedly one of the 49ers' energy guys. He sets the tone for the defense, and his teammates feed off his energetic approach.
Miller also is an active pass rusher off the edge. He attacks quarterbacks in the pocket with a passion, and his undeniable desire routinely produces negative plays. As I tracked Miller's disruptive plays, I was impressed by his overall effort, energy and hustle. He rarely gives up; this relentlessness has helped take the Broncos' defense to another level.
When you really study the skills that each player brings to the table, it's hard to go wrong with either man. Smith is a dominant pass rusher with intriguing skills and a non-stop motor. While he is still refining parts of his game, it's tough to dispute his effectiveness. Miller is a monster playmaker off the edge with a game that is polished in every aspect. He can rush the passer from the linebacker position or as a defensive end, and he can play in coverage. Given that he has such a versatile and explosive game, Miller gets the nod in a tight debate.