The Falcons entered Day 3 of the 2018 NFL Draft prioritizing running back depth behind Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
The result was the selection of Ito Smith, a quick-twitched running back from Southern Mississippi, in the fourth round (126 overall).
Smith fits the versatile mold of the Falcons’ top two backs. He doesn’t profile as a lead rusher but expects to be another weapon on third down. He’ll replace Terron Ward, who wasn’t re-signed, as the team’s third back.
“I probably compare to (49ers running back) Jerick McKinnon,” Smith said. “A guy that can do it all: catch out the backfield, run routes, block, play special teams, run the ball.”
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Smith was electric throughout his four years at Southern Miss, culminating in a first-team All-Conference USA selection his senior year. He led Golden Eagles in rushing three straight seasons.
“Stop-start running back, really good running skills,” Dimitroff said. “Catches the ball well. Has return ability. He’s a versatile guy and fits in very well with our offense.”
A three-star recruit from Mobile, Alabama, Smith played his first two collegiate seasons under current Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken. But his production jumped while taking on a heavier workload his next two years.
Smith, 22, started all 13 games in his junior and senior seasons. He posted back-to-back 1,400-yard seasons while adding 83 catches for 855 yards in that span. He scored 46 total touchdowns in four seasons, with 19 coming in his third year.
“We’re very excited to add him to the mix,” coach Dan Quinn said. “He has very good hands, a factor with us using our running backs always. ... He’s got real explosiveness.”
Falcons running backs coach Bernie Parmalee worked out Smith about three weeks ago, a trial Smith thought went well. He was generally projected to be drafted in the sixth or seventh round.
“I don’t really look at that,” Smith said of the projections. “I try to stay away from all that stuff. A lot of stuff that wasn’t true.”
Dimitroff echoed Smith’s sentiment. He stressed evaluations vary among teams and pundits, and Smith’s absence at the NFL scouting combine didn’t deter them.
“He’s a guy we really thought we could add to our running back rotation,” Dimitroff said. “He’s a hard-charging guy. He’s a top-notch guy there in our program.”
The Falcons continued adding to their offense after going defense on Day 2 Friday. They picked Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley in the first round. They traded up for receiver Russell Gage in the sixth round. Yale linebacker Foyesade Oluokun joined the Falcons at No. 200 to wrap up the draft. The Falcons sent two seventh-round picks, including the final of the draft, to the Rams in the trade.
But Smith was the key selection of the day. And he’s excited to join a backfield with two of the league’s premier runners.
“I know Coleman is a great, great runner,” Smith said. “Freeman is very explosive. He can run some good routes. Just coming in, learning from those guys and just trying to get better at my craft.”
With Freeman coming off a season in which he suffered two concussions, and Coleman entering a contract year, Smith provides potential insurance; though Dimitroff again stated the team hopes to re-sign Coleman, and Smith’s selection was strictly to bolster their depth.
“That’s not what we’re looking at,” Dimitroff said. “We’re looking at him being a nice addition to that third position with Terron Ward leaving. That’s a nice addition for us.”
Dimitroff continued, explaining that Smith is a perfect fit for their scheme.
“He’s been on our radar since we started studying the running backs,” Dimitroff said. “We wanted to make sure we got the best player in our minds at this position who could catch the ball, run the ball. We weren’t necessarily looking for anybody with a particular size or makeup. We wanted a running back who had the skills, vision and ability to do a number of things.”
Smith said he’s comfortable playing in the slot and returning kicks. Quinn assures he’ll get a look at returner, along with Gage.
He averaged 21.2 yards per kick return in 26 collegiate opportunities, though 21 of those came in his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Ultimately, if the Falcons want Smith on the field, it shouldn’t prove too difficult.
“Whatever they ask me to do, I can learn how to do it,” Smith said. “I can get better at whatever they want me to do, man.”
Smith’s legal name is Romarius Smith. He was born during the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. A family member thought he resembled Judge Lance Ito, earning Smith his lifelong nickname.