Evaluating Za'Darius Smith's Rookie Season


The Ravens drafted Za'Darius Smith in the fourth round to replace Pernell McPhee.

So how did Smith do?

When looking at the stats, he measured up.

Smith finished his rookie season with 30 tackles and 5.5 sacks. McPhee, a 2011 fifth-round pick, logged 23 tackles and six sacks during his rookie 2011 campaign.

"I think I did well," Smith said as he cleaned out his locker at season's end.

"Coaches brought me in here to replace a guy, Pernell McPhee, and I think I did a good job of it. Now I've got to go to work this offseason and get better as a pass rusher."

Smith stepped into a larger role when fellow outside linebacker Terrell Suggs went down in the season opener. That didn't allow him to simply focus on improving as a pass rusher. He had to do much, much more.

Being thrown into the fire, Smith didn't get as high pass-rush grades as McPhee during his rookie year, per Pro Football Focus (PFF). While their sacks totals were similar, McPhee was given a plus-18.1 rush grade during his first year while Smith came in at minus-3.8.

The big difference was in quarterback hurries. McPhee had 21 compared to Smith's nine. McPhee has three times more quarterback hits, too. That's despite Smith playing 27 more defensive snaps, according to PFF.

Still, Smith performed well – especially given the circumstances of being a fourth-round pick out of Kentucky thrown into a prominent role. By comparison, Bud Dupree, the Steelers' No. 22 overall draft pick and Smith's teammate at Kentucky, had just 26 tackles and four sacks.

"Coach put me in position to make plays and I did what I had to do, did my job," Smith said.

"In the beginning of the season, I was inactive the first game. I thought, 'Man, I didn't get a shot. I don't have an opportunity.' But I got my chance and made the most of it."

If there isn't a top pass rusher that makes sense at pick No. 6 in this year's draft – as early draft indications project – the Ravens may be looking at another year with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Smith as the top pass rushers.

The return of Suggs would allow Smith to focus on the role the Ravens originally envisioned, which should lead to more sacks. That doesn't mean the Ravens will stand pat on adding pass rushers this offseason, but it could mean good things for Smith.

"Za'Darius Smith didn't get to fill in Pernell's role that we had drafted him for, because all of a sudden he's got to line up on the edge," Owner Steve Bisciotti said.

"We thought we had a good replacement – and we got a good replacement – but immediately, we didn't get to have that third rusher. … We need to develop guys like Za'Darius, we need to draft more of them, and we need to get Suggs back healthy."

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