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Can the 49ers overlook Georgia safety Christopher Smith’s athletic shortcomings?

The safety tested poorly, but has outstanding instincts.

NFL Combine Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It’s hard to stand out in the NFL draft process if you are not a good athlete. Compared to most people on the street, most players who make it as far as the draft are phenomenal athletes, but it is often the truly monstrous physical specimens who rise to the top and, if a prospect tests at a below average level at the Combine or at his pro day, the odds of them succeeding in the pros can be dramatically reduced.

Still, there are ways to compensate for a lack of athleticism, even at a position such as safety where it would seem to be a prerequisite. A safety can still excel despite physical deficiencies if they possess instincts that help negate such weaknesses.

Georgia safety Christopher Smith II has a strong case that he fits such a mold.

Smith spent five years with the Bulldogs, emerging as a critical cog in their dominant defense that was the driving force behind successive National Championship-winning seasons in 2021 and 2022.

He had six interceptions, nine pass breakups and a forced fumble over the course of his final two seasons. In 2022, he tallied five tackles for a loss and a sack to go with three interceptions and five pass breakups.

For all that impressive production, a huge red flag was raised in Smith’s pre-draft testing, which saw him post a Relative Athletic Score of 2.93 out of 10.

Such a performance might be a disqualifier for many prospects. However, Smith has consistently displayed outstanding eye discipline and an ability to successfully read the game that may allow him to succeed, even with athleticism that is a long way short of what teams typically look for from their deep safeties.

And, with a need for a long-term answer at free safety, the 49ers must decide if he consistently strong instinctual play Smith has produced is enough for them to overlook his athletic shortcomings and consider making him the heir apparent at the position.

A decreased need for speed

Watching Smith’s play in college, it is perhaps not surprising he tested poorly. His tape reveals a defender who lacks the fluidity of movement to quickly turn, change direction and run with receivers downfield. Receivers who can test defenses deep with their speed put him in significant trouble, with Smith lacking the pace himself to recover separation when pass-catchers defeat his coverage.

When matching up one on one in coverage, Smith is therefore more reliant on his frame and arms, which measured in the 32nd percentile for safeties, to help him stay in phase.

It is when he is tasked with reading the game from a deep alignment that he atones for a lack of speed through his eyes.

One of the best showcases of his strength in that regard came in the 2022 season opener against Oregon.

Smith’s 40 time of 4.62 seconds does not point to a player with the range to effectively patrol the field in a single-high defense. However, one of his standout plays versus the Ducks saw him surge across the field as the single-high safety to break up a downfield pass.

How did he do it? By reading Bo Nix’s eyes as he set his feet to throw back across to his left and breaking on the ball before it had even been released, arriving at exactly the right time to force the incompletion with a physical hit.

Range is not as important when you’re a step ahead of the play, and Smith’s excellent eye discipline and instincts enabled to consistently be in that position against Oregon.

On this stop, Smith reads three routes — one underneath and two intermediate with one receiver settling in the zone — over the middle and the eyes of Nix to once again correctly diagnose the direction of the throw, break on the ball and stop the receiver short of the sticks.

Smith’s interception in the Week 1 blowout came on a play where he was seemingly ahead of everyone else, reading Nix’s eyes all the way and rapidly triggering downhill to break in front of a pass up the right hash mark to take it back deep into Ducks territory.

Regularly immersed in pre-snap communication, Smith shows an understanding of his and his teammates’ responsibilities and consistently took routes away by expediently diagnosing the play to put himself in the throwing window.

And the downhill trigger that is key to him making plays against the pass makes him similarly effective defending the run.

Smith flies towards the line of scrimmage but utilizes controlled aggression, displaying sound technique while still hitting with power. He takes impressive pursuit angles to the ball, with his violent play versus the run extending to the screen game.

That kind of physicality will certainly appeal to the Niners, but there are naturally still going to be concerns over his athleticism.

A two-pronged discussion

It is not as easy to lean on your instincts in a league bursting at the seams with the kind of explosive downfield playmakers that have been a thorn in Smith’s side at the SEC level. The 49ers, for as much as they may be comfortable with the starting duo of Tashaun Gipson and All-Pro Talanoa Hufanga this season, might for the long term have an eye on a safety who can be an eraser who helps minimize the damage when a gamble the latter often makes backfires.

Smith may have the instincts for that role but, without the athleticism, he is a risky proposition.

Playing on a fearsome Georgia defense that took over game after game clearly played a role in the impact of Smith’s lack of fluidity and speed being reduced. While that is a knock against Smith, it is arguably also an argument for the 49ers drafting him.

With the level of talent they have on the defensive front, the athleticism and coverage ability they boast at linebacker and the improvements they have made at corner, the Niners have the defense — which was best in the NFL last year by DVOA — to dictate games and somewhat hide players without top-tier physical gifts.

The NFL won’t allow Steve Wilks’ defense to experience the kind of superiority Georgia enjoyed on a weekly basis. But, if the 49ers do have a discussion about drafting Smith and eventually making him a starter, the question shouldn’t just be one of their belief in his ability to thrive despite poor testing, but also one of their faith in his potential future teammates to make his below-par athletic weaknesses a non-factor.