Yawin Smallwood could make large impact

As the Atlanta Falcons get ready for rookie minicamp on Friday, one can imagine what's going through Yawin Smallwood's mind.

Here's a kid many scouts considered a second-round talent going into the 2013 football season at Connecticut. Eight months later, the 6-foot-2, 246-pound linebacker had to wonder if leaving school early was a good idea after not hearing his name through the first six rounds.

Eventually, Smallwood was selected by the Falcons in the seventh round, the draft's 253rd overall pick out of 256 and a compensatory selection, at that. Smallwood admitted shedding tears after receiving the call.

Hank Hughes, Smallwood's former defensive coordinator at UConn, had empathy for his former player.

"He's a good football player and can play with the best of them," Hughes said. "Guys that are great players go late some time and other guys jump up that are not. You can never tell.

"Certainly measurables are a big deal. And with him having a bad 40-yard dash and pulling up at the combine, that hurt him."

Hughes was referring to the hamstring injury Smallwood suffered doing a different drill at the February combine, an injury that led to him posting a 5.01-second 40 time. His draft status obviously plummeted due to the misfortune.

The Falcons might end up getting the draft's biggest steal because of it.

"He will show that he's a good football player when he gets to Atlanta," Hughes said. "They are not going to be disappointed with the guy that they drafted. They're going to get a good football player who is going to be athletic in all avenues.

"I think he's good run defender. He needs to be a little bit stronger and stouter at the point of attack. He is a good pass-coverage guy and he's a good blitzer. He has the quality of being able to do a lot of things. He's not just a first- and second-down player. He's a guy who can get out there and cover guys."

Under Hughes, Smallwood played in a system which combined both 3-4 and 4-3 elements, meaning he'll be ready for the multiplicity the Falcons intend to use out of their 3-4 base this coming season.

Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said he plans to use Smallwood as an inside linebacker and understands the rookie will play faster than the 40 time indicated. Smallwood has the reputation for being a big hitter and could work his way onto the field sooner than expected. He had 332 tackles in three seasons at UConn to go with 9.5 sacks and 27 tackles for losses.

Hughes pointed to the game-sealing, 59-yard interception return for a touchdown Smallwood had against Temple this past season as evidence of his athleticism.

"He's got some savvy to him," Hughes said of Smallwood. "In 2012 against Maryland, he had a monster game. And at the end of last year's Temple game, he had that pick-six off a really good quarterback. He took that one to the house and didn't get chased down.

"He played a ton for us. And he's quite a player."