The 25-year old Smith was a 7th round pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012 and won the job as the kickoff returner in camp. However, after the first game, he was benched and remained inactive for the rest of his rookie year. In 2013, he was back in the mix, but missed the whole season with an injury. The Bucs released him in May.
After the jump, I look in detail at footage from Smith's time in the league to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses.
Who is Michael Smith?
The 5'9" Smith attended Utah State where he split reps with Seattle Seahawks running back Robert Turbin. Smith, used in a change of pace role, averaged over seven yards per carry, including 7.6 in his senior year. He had a sparkling performance at his pro day (4.33 forty, 40.5" vertical, 126" broad jump, 23 bench press reps), which led to him being projected as a late round pick in the 2012 draft.
Sure enough, Tampa Bay selected him in the seventh round and he did a good job on kickoff returns in preseason, winning that job. He had also generated 112 yards from scrimmage on 30 touches. However, in his NFL debut, he returned just three kicks and didn't see any action on offense, then was made inactive as the Bucs gave that job to Arrelious Benn. He didn't play again that season, although he remained on the 53-man roster.
In 2013, he again flashed as a return man, but tore a ligament in his foot and was placed on injured reserve prior to the season. He joins the Jets who have already brought in one running back this year (Daryl Richardson) after Mike Goodson failed to report. There could be an opportunity to get some touches in preseason with Bilal Powell currently hurt, Chris Johnson on a "pitch count" and Chris Ivory being monitored closely due to previous injury concerns.
Let's take a brief look at the six preseason and one regular season appearances that Smith has made:
Week 1 - at Miami
Smith didn't make much of an impact on offense, with just 12 yards on 10 touches, but did flash with this spectacular 74-yard kickoff return. He bounced off one tackle and ran through another on that play, but did get caught from behind. He showed good burst on his other kick return too, as that went for 34 yards. On most of his runs, he really had nowhere to go and did at least move the pile a few times. He was slow out of his stance on one run where the hole closed before he got to the line, perhaps misreading the snap count there. He stayed in to pass block a few times, making an effective cut on an outside linebacker but also missing a pickup on a delayed blitz where the quarterback got rid of the ball quickly.
Week 2 - v Tennessee
Smith had more offensive success in the next game, running for 31 yards on seven carries. 17 came on one play as he showed good burst to hit a big hole on the right side and burst into the open field. He also had a conversion on 3rd and two. On one run, he wasn't able to break out of a tackle by a defensive end on the edge, otherwise he could have had another big gain. While he didn't break any long returns here, he impressively got the ball out past the 20 on five out of five returns, breaking a few tackles in the process.
Week 3 - v New England
In this game, Smith rushed for 38 yards on six carries, caught two passes for 16 yards and returned three kicks for 78 yards. At the start of the fourth, he had an impressive drive where they gave him the ball four straight times and he took the Bucs from their own 28 to the Patriots 38. First of all he ran up the middle for 11, skipping over a tackle at the second level. Then he caught a pass in the flat and slipped a tackle. On the next play they dumped it to him underneath and he broke one tackle and then used a stiff arm as he got outside on another man. Finally he showed burst and drive to pick up seven more. Later on that drive, he had a nine yard run outside, but it was negated by a hold. He had one more run later in the game where he showed patience to drive for six behind his fullback. As a return man, he had a good runback for 39 as he slipped a tackle and drove for extra yardage. However, his other two returns were bad decisions, one seeing him tackled inside the 20 and the other seeing him almost tackled inside the 15, although he managed to slip out to the 22. As a pass blocker, he had one semi-effective cut block as the quarterback got rid of the ball early.
Week 4 - at Washington
In the last preseason game, Smith started and did not play much, rushing just four times for four yards. On each carry he had nowhere to go. He did pick up 11 on a dump-off pass underneath but that was easy yardage on 2nd and 23. He did get some extra pass protection reps and struggled on one pickup as the OLB got him off-balance with an outside rush. However, on another pickup he did well to get in front of a strong safety blitz.
2012 regular season
Week 1 - v Carolina
After a solid preseason as a return man, it was Smith's decision making that cost him the role in the season opener. He was tackled at the 10 and 18 on two of his three returns where he should have just stayed in the end zone.
Week 1 - v Baltimore
In the first preseason game of 2013, Smith ran for 15 yards on five carries and caught a nine yard pass on a 2nd and 10 screen. On one run he looked to turn the corner, but was nailed in the open field by a safety and stoppped in his tracks for four. He did convert a third and one play. As a kick returner, he had two underwhelming attempts, one of which saw him run into his own man short of the 20. He did have a good blitz pickup off the edge, but on another play, two rushers came free and he picked up the outside guy, leading to pressure up the middle.
Week 2 - at New England
Another promising runback from Smith here, as he takes this one 63 yards, bursting into the open field and turning a would-be tackler around in the open field. This would be his only significant contribution though, as he did not play on offense and suffered the foot injury that would end his season.
Based on all the regular season footage I watched, here was my take on what Smith brings to the table, divided into categories:
Usage - In 2013, Smith was used exclusively as a half back. However, he did line up out wide once in 2012.
Running Ability - Despite the fact his speed is his greatest asset and he doesn't have ideal size, Smith is a direct, straight-ahead runner. He doesn't dance around or make many fancy moves, just powers ahead mostly. One thing I did notice was that where he broke tackles, it tended to be on defensive backs rather than big front seven players. As most of this action was two years ago, he might have developed more power since then, which could make a difference.
While his preseason rushing numbers were pretty underwhelming, a lot of that was down to poor blocking from the backups in front of him. As a decent statistical comparison, he had 83 yards on 26 carries in 2012 whereas Mossis Madu had 60 on 23 carries. He beat out Madu for the last roster spot and then Madu spent time with the Jets last year, so maybe we can conclude he has slightly more to offer than Madu.
Pass Protection - In the last preseason game of 2012, they were using Madu on running downs and then bringing Smith off the bench to pass protect so that may be a sign that he was ahead of him in that area too. However, it might just have been an area where they wanted Smith to get extra reps.
While we didn't see much from Smith in this area, he didn't make any terrible mistakes. He looked overmatched at times, but generally did what he could to allow the quarterback to get his throw off. Smith actually looked good against defensive backs, but again struggled with bigger players, something that he might have improved upon if he's added strength since then.
Receiving Threat - All in all, Smith caught five passes for 38 yards, so he showed moderate capabilities in this area. Each time he was targeted was a completion, but he didn't showcase much versatility, as they were all checkdowns underneath. On the one play where he lined up outside, he ran a shallow crosser and was actually uncovered underneath but the quarterback didn't see him and was sacked.
Hands - His hands seem pretty good, albeit that he never had any difficult catches to make when receiving or returning. He didn't have any drops or fumbles.
Instincts - There were a couple of moments where Smith didn't appear to find a suitable space to sit down in for a dump-off pass in time and where the quarterback scrambled but Smith missed the chance to make a block downfield. These struck me as rookie mistakes, perhaps caused by him concentrating too hard on his primary assignment.
Injuries - Smith should no longer be troubled by the foot injury that wrecked his 2013 season. He also missed most of 2010 with a toe injury when he was in college.
Special Teams - This is where Smith has the most chance to contribute. He broke some long returns and showed that he was capable of bringing the ball out past the 20 consistently, showing burst, vision and an ability to break tackles when he can accelerate up to top speed. Other than on kickoff returns, I didn't see any other special teams contributions from him.
Earlier today, Rich Cimini tweeted that Smith can return punts, but I think he's been ill-informed. Smith never returned punts in college or while with the Bucs and didn't even try it in practice when the Bucs were desperate for someone in 2012 and he was sitting on the roster inactive every week. (And yes, I know the 74-yard return above says "punt return" in the link but that was a mistake by NFL.com too).
The Jets often bring up a back during camp and they might get a chance to see action in preseason but rarely challenge for a roster spot. Smith's return skills might give him an outside shot, especially since there's no obvious candidate for the role currently on the roster. However, I think it's more likely that an actual contributor will double up and take the role because the Jets may not have enough spare roster spots to afford the luxury of a specialist.
Still, Smith is young and has upside, so if he makes the most of his opportunities, maybe he can turn some heads - especially if other backs continue to suffer with injuries.