Defensive tackles tend to not get much attention in the NFL Draft unless they’re either athletic freaks or have good upside as pass rushers.
Granted, the two traits tend to go hand-in-hand.
Michigan’s Mazi Smith holds pride of place as the number one “freak” on Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks List”. But while other defensive tackles make waves for their speed or explosiveness, Smith earned his spot through pure power. Smith’s raw strength was renowned around Michigan’s strength and conditioning program and it was on display throughout the Wolverine’s last two seasons.
Smith isn’t (yet) a productive pass rusher, but he is able to control the interior offensive line like few others in college football.
It’s also notable that Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh hired DC Jesse Minter away from the Baltimore Ravens because he wanted to incorporate Wink Martindale’s scheme into Michigan’s defense.
The New York Giants had one of the worst run defenses in the NFL last year and have already invested in their run defense. But could Smith’s raw power and experience in a very similar defensive scheme make him appealing to the Giants?
Prospect: Mazi Smith (53)
Games Watched: vs. Iowa (2022), vs. Ohio State (2022), vs. Purdue (2022 Big 10 Championship), vs. TCU (2022 College Football Playoffs)
Red Flags: Arrest (October, 2022 - Charges dismissed)
Games Played: 30
Tackles for a loss: 6.0
Forced fumbles: 1
Passes defensed: 3
Games Played: 14
Tackles for a loss: 2.5
Forced fumbles: 1
Passes defensed: 0
Best: Play strength, competitive toughness, run defense, short-area quickness and agility
Worst: Hand usage, pass rush
Projection: A starting nose tackle with scheme versatility and three-down upside.
Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith has an impressive combination of size, power, and competitive toughness to play the position at the NFL level.
Smith is a massively powerful lineman who can overpower individual blockers and control double-teams – and even triple teams. He generally plays with good leverage, allowing him to help establish the line of scrimmage and control his gaps without giving ground to opposing blockers. Smith has great strength in his upper and lower halves, allowing him to bench press blockers, getting them on their heels, then drive them into the backfield. He also has great core strength and is able to torque blockers and seal running lanes or deposit them on the ground before getting into pursuit. His upper body strength also allows him to control blockers with a single hand and make plays as runners attempt to challenge his gap.
Smith has good football IQ and does a good job of diagnosing the play. He keys the snap well and is seldom tardy in his get-off, and is also rarely fooled by misdirection. Smith is also quick to recognize screen plays and does a good job of retracing to get into pursuit.
He has solid initial quickness and lateral agility for a bigger defensive tackle. While Smith doesn’t have great long speed or range, he’s agile enough to execute gap exchange stunts along the line of scrimmage. He’s able to occupy multiple blockers to help facilitate his teammates’ pass rush, as well as attack individual gaps himself.
But while Smith’s power allows him to flash upside as a backfield disruptor, they’re only flashes at this point. He is, in large part, due to inefficient hand usage. Smith defaults to a swim move when rushing the passer, which exposes his core and can create opportunities for blockers to re-anchor and slow down his rush. His hand usage and technique is still a work in progress and showed improvement toward the end of his junior season.
He will need to improve his ability to effectively and consistently deal with blockers’ hands to be a consistent threat at the NFL level.
As mentioned before, Smith lacks great long speed, and while he offers good effort in pursuit, he can be out-run without much difficulty. He can also struggle with balance, particularly if he needs to change direction quickly.
Smith was arrested for speeding and illegally carrying a concealed weapon in October of 2022. The charges were dismissed when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor during the hearing.
Overall Grade: 7.3
Mazi Smith projects as a starting nose tackle with schematic diversity at the NFL level.
While the nose tackle position isn’t particularly glamorous, pretty much every defense can use a good one. That’s particularly true as teams adopt more Cover 4 schemes to counter explosive passing attacks. Whether he becomes a true three-down player or is regarded as “just” a run-stuffer will likely depend on the situation in which he lands and his development through the beginning of his career.
Smith has the potential to be a disruptive defensive tackle who offers value at every down and distance. While he might never be a particularly productive pass rusher, denying quarterbacks a pocket into which they can climb is certainly valuable. He might not have the raw athleticism to finish his rushes, but he can still blow up plays if he can efficiently beat blockers.
As it stands now, defensive coordinators can use his play strength to create opportunities for other pass rushers – assuming they don’t want to focus on generating pressure with just four rushers.
Smith’s power and upside will likely get him drafted relatively highly, and his ability to stop the run gives him a high floor. He will likely be drafted fairly early on the second day, and could turn into a good value pick if a defensive line coach can fully unlock his potential.