In recent seasons, prospects like Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo, and Mike Morris have eaten on Michigan’s defensive line. But Michigan DT Mazi Smith, who has an equally compelling 2023 NFL Draft scouting report, has been a big part of the unit’s overall success — literally and figuratively. How does the Wolverines’ stalwart project to the NFL?
Mazi Smith NFL Draft Profile
Early on, Smith drew looks as a future NFL nose tackle. A four-star recruit out of East Kentwood High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Smith drew comparisons to standard-bearing nose tackles like Bengals stud D.J. Reader. Schematically, he wouldn’t be coveted by every team. But the Wolverines saw a use for his special upside at the line’s center.
It took time for Smith to develop into the lineman he is now, of course. And even now, there’s still work to do before Smith is completely ready for the NFL. But the raw talent that Smith has flashed has awed onlookers at times, and 2022 has already been his most enthralling season yet.
MORE: FREE Mock Draft Simulator With Trades
After breaking out as a starter with 37 tackles, two tackles for loss, and three pass deflections in 2021, Smith already has 18 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a half-sack in five games in 2022. The Michigan DT is gradually climbing toward his ceiling, all the while enticing odd-front defensive coordinators with what he can become.
So, what can Smith become? That’s what we’re here to discuss.
- Position: Defensive Tackle
- School: Michigan
- Current Year: Senior
- Height/Weight: 6’3″, 337 pounds
Mazi Smith Scouting Report
In an era where the value of nose tackles can be hard to decipher, what kind of stock might Smith command in the 2023 NFL Draft? That depends, ultimately, on his three-down upside.
At 6’3″, 337 pounds, Smith has a massive, naturally well-leveraged frame. With his size, he can shrug off chip blocks and absorb double-teams.
Of course, it’s well-advertised that Smith isn’t just incredibly big. He’s very athletic, too. That much was clear when he was the top freak on Feldman’s Freaks list in the summer. Per Feldman, Smith has a 33″ vertical jump, a 9’4.5″ broad jump, and an absurd 6.95 three-cone time. He’s also logged 22 reps of 325 pounds on the bench press. At the NFL Combine, the weight utilized is 225.
All the numbers say Smith is a rare physical specimen, and the tape corroborates that belief. Smith flashes a quick first step as a pass rusher, and he has great explosive capacity off the line. He channels good foot speed into contact, and he uses this foot speed to accelerate quickly off the line and supplement lateral moves. Furthermore, Smith has good long-track explosiveness heading into contact on surefire passing downs, and he can accelerate quickly into gaps after stunting to find space.
Smith has a powerful build and great raw power that comes with his frame. The Michigan DT can quickly generate power after displacing blockers, using leg drive to shove blockers back into the pocket. He’s shown he can knock back blockers with full extensions, and he carries great force into contact with his mass and burst. With his high-level raw power, Smith can plow blockers upright off the snap and break into the backfield. He also showcases the necessary rotational strength and upper-body torque to throw blockers aside when properly leveraged.
Burst and power are surprisingly prominent elements of Smith’s game, taking his size into account. But far and away, his best trait is his functional strength. Smith has elite raw strength, controlling gaps easily with properly applied strength. He has the strength to long-arm guards and prevent displacement while clogging lanes. Additionally, with his strength, Smith can quickly rip down anchors while running with blocks and deconstruct before entering pursuit mode.
With his core strength, Smith can stonewall moving blockers and minimize space generated as blocks move across face. He also has rare recovery strength. The Michigan DT can take on two blockers and still halt momentum, absorbing massive amounts of power and force. He has the strength to plant, rip down anchors, and destroy frontside blocks while surging into running paths. Moreover, Smith flashes extremely impressive recovery strength in his lower body. He can redirect momentum and clamp down on runners while anchored, and he has the hand strength to quickly anchor and shed blocks.
MORE: 2023 NFL Draft Big Board
For his size, Smith flashes excellent lateral agility and change of direction in space. He can quickly flip his hips to track players to the sideline. The Michigan DT has good lateral twitch heading into contact, which he can use to displace blockers and open up attack angles. He can leverage this quick initial twitch into spry lateral moves, which can offset blockers immediately off the snap. In a similar vein, Smith has the loose hips and lateral agility to provide value on stunts.
Smith’s skill set is particularly beneficial as a run defender, but the nose tackle has visible pass-rushing upside. Smith has shown he can capitalize on displacement with rip moves up the A gap and pry into the pocket with his strength. He can levy quick inside swims with fast, forceful hands, breaking anchors as he does so. And after levying violent swims, he can quickly snap his hips into place and rip into gaps while driving and exploding upfield.
Going further with Smith’s pass-rushing upside, the Michigan DT has an awareness of how to use initial rushing angles to offset linemen, then attack the space generated in real time. He also senses when blockers are imbalanced, throwing them aside with swift, brutal shoves generated by his rotational torque. He carries an explosive closing burst toward the QB once he has a free lane, and he’s a tenacious finisher who seeks out contact. Furthermore, Smith has shown he can provide second-effort rushes, even when encumbered by double-teams.
As is becoming a theme with Smith, his pursuit ability is also impressive for his 6’3″, 337-pound frame. Smith has the hip flexibility to quickly swivel around and enter pursuit mode when unencumbered. He also shows good pursuit speed for his size to the sideline. He hustles in pursuit and can run down players toward the boundary. He’s shown he can maintain his balance while being moved off his spot, and recover after shedding blocks.
Expanding on his pursuit ability, Smith has the awareness to recognize when he’s on the front side of plays, and he can rip down blocks and crash in on the RB. He also has good gap awareness and can slip past moving centers and sneak into the A gap. Smith understands leverage angles off the snap, and he’s shown he can use them to open up pursuit lanes.
Smith’s Areas for Improvement
While Smith has great explosive capacity, he doesn’t consistently bring an elite first step. Being a nose tackle, he can’t always attack downhill, as he has to maintain discipline on early downs. But even on running downs, his lack of elite functional explosiveness can inhibit his ability to win at contact. Ideally, he’d win at initial contact more often. To do this, he can better channel his burst and manage his pads to hold ground.
Going further, although Smith has high-end power capacity, that power capacity isn’t quite elite, either. His average length puts a slight cap on that capacity. And his leg drive does stall out at times when his pad level is too high. Additionally, Smith doesn’t always show elite lower-body strength. He can be moved off his spot by double-teams. Of course, leverage also has a large hand in this flaw.
Smith’s height affords him a degree of natural leverage, but he still has a lot of room to improve at properly managing his pad level and leverage. At times, Smith can be more controlled when managing gaps. He sometimes gets tugged out of position and can take a moment to recover ground. Smith aligns upright too often at contact, sometimes neutralizing his lower body before attempting power exertions.
Not only does Smith’s tendency to pop up upright at contact stall power exertions, but it also makes him easier to get under and relocated by centers. Smith needs to do a better job maintaining leverage on moving blocks, as he can easily drift upfield if he doesn’t have proper pad level. The Michigan DT can be surprisingly easy to control with his upright alignment and high pad level. And losses at the snap can be difficult to recover from.
Moving onward, Smith too often opens up his torso off the snap, allowing blockers to take advantage of the extra surface area. He doesn’t always have a pass-rush plan, and he can be uncoordinated when rushing across alignments. Smith sometimes simply slams into contact with his frame and can do a better job loading and fully exerting his hands to maximize power output and channel power efficiently. Overall, his execution of pass-rush moves can be more consistent.
Among other things, Smith’s rushes occasionally fade out when his first moves don’t hit (or when encountered by double-teams). He doesn’t quite have the elite ankle flexion necessary to splice around blocks after penetrating gaps. And in pursuit, Smith’s lack of elite length does impact his reach as a tackler at times. He also lacks elite pursuit speed.
Current Draft Projection for Michigan DT Mazi Smith
Smith grades out as a late Day 2 prospect, who should have some draft security with his size and freakish athletic projections. As of now, there are still a few areas in which Smith has to experience added growth. But his combination of explosiveness, agility, power, and strength — at a talent-sparse position like nose tackle — is impossible to take for granted.
Even with his natural leverage, Smith has to be more consistent with his pad level and his axis when attacking blocks. Diverting upright will often make him easier to control and displace by smaller interior blockers. He’s shown he can deconstruct and recover after being worked upfield, but NFL linemen will more easily exploit this.
MORE: 2023 NFL Draft DT Class
That said, even with his inconsistent pad level and his existing need for refinement as a pass rusher, Smith shows enough promise to bank on. In run defense, he combines his brute strength and angle awareness to seal gaps and swallow up runners, and he has the size to absorb multiple blockers. And as a pass rusher, Smith has shown he can combine his burst and lateral agility with violent swims and rip moves.
Smith already has a strong projection as a run defender in 0 and 1-technique alignments, and he has the tools to support development on the pass-rushing side as well. His stock is likely capped out in the Day 2 range, but Smith’s pure blend of traits could render him worthy of a top-75 pick in an era where personnel flexibility is so valuable.