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Pro football: New team, financial security for Smith

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

CHARLOTTE — He’s gone from a 25-year-old hanging on to an NFL locker by his fingernails to a 26-year-old with a lucrative, three-year contract in his pocket.

Life has changed dramatically for former West Rowan High phenom Chris Smith since last summer.

Smith signed a deal last week with his new team, the Cleveland Browns, that figures to pay him more than $15 million from 2018-2020. There’s a $3.5 million signing bonus and $12 million in salary spread over three seasons. About $4.5 million of that windfall is guaranteed, even if Smith suffers a devastating injury.

There are incentives in the contract that could push the monetary rewards higher. Incentives in the fine print include such perks as a $250,000 bonus if Smith produces four or more sacks in the 2018 season. That seems reachable for the rejuvenated Smith.

“Basically, it’s about $5 million a year,” Smith said. “I don’t know if I’ll be a starter or not, but Cleveland is paying me like a starter. Cleveland showed me so much love, the same kind of love Arkansas showed me coming out of high school. What this contract means to me is security for my family for the rest of our lives.”

Smith was paid $690,000 last season, so he’s gotten quite a raise.

Smith was a sensational player for West Rowan’s Falcons from 2007-09, starring for two of coach Scott Young’s 3A state champions. He was defensive MVP of the Shrine Bowl before heading to Arkansas to prove himself in the SEC, the nation’s top football conference.

Smith saw limited action for the Razorbacks as a true freshman, but he was a helpful player as a sophomore and he blossomed into a physical force as a junior and senior. He finished his Arkansas career with 21.5 sacks, second team All-SEC accolades and a reputation for solid citizenship, flawless work ethic and relentless pass-rushing.

What Smith (6-foot-1, 266 pounds) didn’t have was ideal size. He’s extremely strong and agile and he ran a 4.71 40 at the NFL Combine, but he was viewed as something of a tweener, not quite big enough for the defensive line and not experienced at linebacker. Smith was projected as a third-round pick, but NFL teams were skeptical. He lasted until the fifth round of the 2014 draft. He was the 159th overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Jaguars viewed Smith as strictly a situational pass-rusher, and, while he always made the team, he got buried on the depth chart.

Smith spent three quiet seasons with the Jaguars. His rookie season actually was the most productive. He played in only 19 games in those three years and registered 4.5 sacks. An eye injury in 2016 cost him a month, but there were other times when he was healthy and still wasn’t deemed worthy of being activated.

He was under-used by Jacksonville. but he’s not bitter. Jacksonville drafted him, gave him an opportunity to be part of the league.

Jacksonville parted ways with Smith last April, dispatching him to the Cincinnati Bengals, with the modest compensation turning out to be a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft.

The Bengals’ coaches were enthusiastic about Smith, but he basically had to make the team in last year’s preseason games like he was a rookie.

“When I was traded to Cincinnati, I told my parents that this would be the season that put me out of the league  — or put me in the league,” Smith said.

Smith responded with, by far, his best and most impactful season in 2017. He credits Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis and former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

“They gave me the opportunity to play and a chance to show my versatility,” Smith said. “I played nose tackle, I played defensive tackle, I played right end, I played left end, and I even dropped back into coverage as a linebacker. I was on a one-year contact. I knew I had to take advantage of every chance I was given, and I went at it 100 percent.”

Smith played about 35 percent of the Bengals’ defensive snaps and also was a major contributor on special teams. He played in all 16 games for the first time and was in on 26 tackles. He had three sacks (one against the Browns) and forced a fumble. He also brought the sort of energy and effort that can’t be easily quantified by the stat sheet.

Smith showed enough to get the struggling Browns’ attention. When the window opened on March 12 for NFL teams to start negotiating with unrestricted free agents, Smith immediately got an overwhelming offer from the Browns.

“It really didn’t take long to say yes,” Smith said with a chuckle. “I know this  sounds like a crazy deal, and I know some people are surprised by it. But Cleveland believes in me. They’ll get my best, everything I’ve got. Anything I can do to help the team, I’ll do it. I’ll play anywhere.”

Smith really liked Cincinnati and he really liked Lewis. Cincinnati wanted to bring him back, but the Bengals were talking about a two-year contract and significantly fewer dollars.

“I talked to Coach Lewis,” Smith said. “I told him I’m grateful for the opportunity the Bengals gave me to show I can play in this league, but this is just business. The NFL is a business.”

The Browns are the Browns. They were 0-16 in 2017.

The good news is they’ve been making headlines just about every day since the free-agent signing period began. Smith is excited about the addition of workhorse running back Carlos Hyde and talented receiver Jarvis Landry, but mostly he’s excited about the arrival of former Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor, who has played in Pro Bowls and playoff games. Cleveland also has the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, and a former No. 1 pick (defensive end Myles Garrett), whom Smith believes is going to be the league’s next big thing.

“I’ve talked to Tyrod, and I have no doubt that things will change in Cleveland,” Smith said. “He’s a leader and he’s a good quarterback. We can’t control what happened in the past in Cleveland, but we can control what happens next season. I’m not going to make any crazy predictions, but our motto is going to be, ‘Expect to win.'”

Smith will be heading back to Cleveland on April 16 for team workouts. Until then, he’ll be busy. He’s buying a house in Charlotte and he works out diligently at Ultimate Athlete Sports Performance in Charlotte.

He’s smiling a lot these days, still amazed at how quickly his life changed.

“I’m just a guy from a small town who always worked hard and made it from Salisbury to the NFL,” Smith said. “It’s not like anyone ever rolled out the red carpet for me. Not long ago, I was fighting for a roster spot, but now I have some security. I feel blessed, very blessed, and I’ll be giving back.”

Smith’s primary way of giving back in Rowan County and the Charlotte area is going to be through a non-profit charity that launched earlier this month —  Chris’ Closet.

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