Chuck Smith spent nine years chasing NFL quarterbacks. Now he trains the next generation to do it. And in Smith's mind, this year's draft class epitomizes the evolution of the modern pass rusher.
"This is a gang of monsters," Smith told USA TODAY Sports this week. "(UCLA's Anthony) Barr on down to (Buffalo's Khalil) Mack on down to (Pittsburgh's) Aaron Donald. There are guys in the second and third round that are coming out, even the fourth round this year, man.
"(If) they get the right development, they can become the next J.J. Watt. They can become the next Aldon Smith. It's a special group."
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That's without mentioning the athletic freak likely to be picked first, South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney, or Smith's star pupil, Missouri's Kony Ealy, who could be off the board in Round 1 along with Auburn's Dee Ford, among others.
As offenses and quarterbacks move away from strict pocket-passing schemes, the skills of the guys coming after them are transforming, too.
"That's a huge part of it, because you have to have the speed upfield to be able to run down or contain these athletic quarterbacks," Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said. "Just like it evolved in college, I think some of that is evolving at our level, too."
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Young pass rushers also are coming in with a greater understanding they must study and develop a signature move, according to Smith, who had all of his 58½ career sacks with the Falcons and now runs his Football 365 training system in Atlanta.
Combine the technical aspects of the game with the raw ability of a Clowney or Mack, Smith said, and the presence of that one player could be enough to discourage the team that drafts someone like Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel from embracing the improvisation skills that make him so dangerous.
"I'm telling my defensive end, 'Put your shoulder pad in his sternum. Let's knock him out and give us a competitive advantage,'" Smith said. "We're not trying to hurt you. But when you run the ball, you become a target. That's the way coordinators are going to go now.
"I know everybody needs a quarterback. (But) this ain't the time to start developing the spread-option running quarterback, because these (pass rushers) are bigger, faster and more vicious than ever."
Spielman agreed that "there's going to be depth throughout the draft, even through the mid-rounds," including numerous DPRs – designated pass rushers, who will make rosters with one job in mind.
It'd be tough to top the 2011 draft class, which produced four elite pass rushers (Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Watt and Robert Quinn) in the first 14 picks. Each has at least 34½ sacks in three NFL seasons, putting them on track to be remembered in the same breath as the 1985 class that produced Bruce Smith, Chris Doleman and Kevin Greene.
Clowney and Mack are the only pass rushers even considered top-14 locks this year. But if Chuck Smith is right, there will be star power to be found long after that — which could up being bad news for the guys they're paid to make miserable.
"You're going to see a lot of quarterbacks getting knocked out in the next 10 years," Smith said. "The more you run, the more chances you take of getting hurt. You see those times at the combine. They're chasing them down."
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