FAYETTEVILLE — Former Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith and center Travis Swanson began the extended interview process in January, competing in front of NFL personnel at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
They participated in pro football’s meat market at the NFL Scouting Combine a few weeks later, going through a rigorous three-day schedule aimed to poke, prod and test NFL hopefuls. It was followed by a pro day on Arkansas’ campus in early March and, since, a two-month period of wondering and waiting. Waiting and wondering.
So it’s understandable both players, who are considered Arkansas’ top two prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft, are eagerly awaiting the final step.
“We’re ready to get our name called and get to it,” Smith said. “Do what we do best.”
Smith, Swanson and the rest of Arkansas’ pro football hopefuls will finally get some clarity when the first-round of the 2014 NFL Draft begins in New York City.
There’s little chance any former Razorback is selected in tonight’s first round, but Swanson and Smith should be pulled off the board either Friday (Rounds 2 and 3) or Saturday (Rounds 4 through 7). It will be the conclusion of a four-month interview process that has been longer than usual because of the NFL’s decision to push the draft back from its normal slot in mid-April to early May.
Swanson said the long layoff has forced him to do a “lot of working out” in order to keep busy. But he doesn’t mind because of what is coming in the next few days.
“It will be a dream come true,” Swanson said. “I just wish I knew where it will be.”
Of course, that’s the mystery of the NFL Draft. It’s anyone’s guess.
The Kingwood, Texas, native is rated as the third-best center in the draft and projected as a third- or fourth-round pick, according to CBSSports.com. He’s also projected as a fourth-round pick by the mock draft website WalterFootball.com.
The 6-foot-5, 312-pound Swanson, who said he has stayed away from draft talk on social media, television and the Internet, won’t be consumed by where he’s selected.
Instead, Swanson said he’ll be prepared after a college career in which he started every game, including his final season under Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
“I think it was a night and day difference than what people saw two seasons ago,” Swanson said about his growth at Arkansas. “I think this past season just benefitted me so much for coming back, and just learning from them. Getting a whole new perspective on things and then obviously the success that not only Coach B, but Coach Pittman has had with linemen really intrigued me.”
Bielema said NFL scouts love Swanson’s durability, dependability and versatility, projecting him as either a center or guard at the next level. Bielema also said Swanson showed plenty of football IQ during individual meetings as well.
Bielema believes consistency remains a question some NFL personnel have considering Swanson was “never asked to pull” before the 2013 season. But he is confident Swanson has the tools to become a successful offensive lineman.
“I consider him kind of being a steal of the class just because I think his best football is in front of him,” Bielema said.
The same possibility exists with Smith, who was one of the most productive defensive ends in the program’s history after recording 21 1/2 sacks as a Razorback.
He spent most of his career as a defensive end in Arkansas’ 4-3 defense, but has garnered more attention as an outside linebacker for 3-4 schemes throughout the draft process. Smith, who at 6-foot-1, 266 pounds is undersized for most prototypical defensive ends in the NFL, was tested extensively as an outside linebacker during Arkansas’ pro day.
“I think his stock rose in the combine and some of the individual workouts when they saw how well he moved,” Bielema said. “They were impressed with just his overall athletic ability. … I think Chris flashes at times very, very well. I think they’re looking for more consistency out of him and that’s probably going to be the No. 1 thing that will either drive down his draft value or bring it up.”
Smith is projected as a second- or third-round pick, according to CBSSports.com. He’s also rated as the 79th-best player in the draft and the No. 7 outside linebacker.
Smith — who had a private workout with the New England Patriots and a meeting with the Chicago Bears last month — is confident he can play the position.
“I know I’m an undersized defensive ends and things of that nature,” Smith said. “Most teams are going to overlook me for that. But the team that picks me up, they made a great decision. That’s the one thing about it. Any team that picks me up, they’re going to get a hell of a player. I’m just coming in there ready to work.”
Smith, who was in New York earlier this week for the NFL Rookie Premiere event, will be watching the draft in his hometown of Mount Ulla, N.C. Smith believes he can be taken as high as the second round or as low as the fourth round this week.
Arkansas has not had a player selected in the second round or higher since the 2008 NFL Draft, when Darren McFadden and Felix Jones were first-round picks. The running backs also were the Razorbacks’ last first-round selections.
Both Swanson and Smith would love to join that group, although neither is consumed by where they’re taken. The reason: they know their professional football careers finally are going to begin one way or another in the next few days.
“I just look at it like all this hard work is paying off,” Smith said. “It wasn’t wasted.”
ARKANSAS IN THE PAST 10 NFL DRAFTS
2013 — RB Knile Davis (Kansas City, Round 3), QB Tyler Wilson (Oakland, Round 4), WR Cobi Hamilton (Cincinnati, Round 6), TE Chris Gragg (Buffalo, Round 7)
2012 — DE Jake Bequette (New England, Round 3), WR Joe Adams (Carolina, Round 4), WR Jarius Wright (Minnesota, Round 4), WR Greg Childs (Minnesota, Round 4)
2011 — QB Ryan Mallett (New England, Round 3), TE D.J. Williams (Green Bay, Round 5), OT DeMarcus Love (Minnesota, Round 6)
2010 — OG Mitch Petrus (New York Giants, Round 5)
2009 — C Jonathan Luigs (Cincinnati, Round 4)
2008 — RB Darren McFadden (Oakland, Round 1), RB Felix Jones (Dallas, Round 1), DT Marcus Harrison (Chicago, Round 3), OT Nate Garner (New York Jets, Round 7), FB Peyton Hillis (Denver, Round 7), WR Marcus Monk (Chicago, Round 7)
2007 — DE Jamaal Anderson (Atlanta, Round 1), CB Chris Houston (Atlanta, Round 2), OT Tony Ugoh (Indianapolis, Round 2), DT Keith Jackson (St. Louis, Round 7)
2006 — S Vickiel Vaughn (San Francisco, Round 7)
2005 — WR Matt Jones (Jacksonville, Round 1), DE Jeb Huckeba (Seattle, Round 5)
2004 — OT Shawn Andrews (Philadelphia, Round 1), CB Ahmad Carroll (Green Bay, Round 1), LB Caleb Miller (Cincinnati, Round 3), RB Cedric Cobbs (New England, Round 4), LB Tony Bua (Miami, Round 5), OT Bo Lacy (Pittsburgh, Round 6)