One year after a historic 2022 NFL Draft class, the Georgia Bulldogs are once again poised to dominate Round 1, and standout EDGE Nolan Smith is a crucial part of that development. Smith’s projection is different from those who came before him, but with his explosive athleticism and exciting upside, he could be a game-changer in the NFL.
Nolan Smith NFL Draft Profile
- Position: EDGE
- School: Georgia
- Current Year: Senior
- Height/Weight: 6’2″, 238 pounds
- Length: 32 5/8″
- Wingspan: 80″
- Hand: 9″
Kirby Smart didn’t stumble on his abundance of defensive talent by accident. Smart’s Bulldogs staff relentlessly recruited the nation’s top talent for years. Smith was arguably their greatest addition.
Smith was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2019 class. A product of the famed IMG Academy, Smith had a recorded 4.51 40-yard dash, a 4.15 shuttle time, and a 39.6″ vertical out of high school. He was an elite athlete with a sturdy frame, oozing first-round potential.
Smith joined up with the Bulldogs and quickly saw the field. He was the co-winner of the Defensive Newcomer of the Year award for Georgia in 2019, putting up 2.5 sacks in rotational action. He mirrored that production in 2020 and took another step forward in the team’s championship-winning 2021 campaign.
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As a true junior, Smith enjoyed success alongside Travon Walker, Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, and others, putting up 53 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles in 14 starts.
When Walker, Davis, Wyatt, and Lewis Cine all left in the 2022 NFL Draft, Smith became the Georgia defense’s premier playmaker. And for a large chunk of the 2022 season, he lived up to the hype, amassing three sacks, seven tackles for loss, and a pass deflection in eight games.
Unfortunately, early in the Bulldogs’ ninth game, Smith suffered a torn pectoral and was lost for the rest of the season. Naturally, Smith fell under the radar for a bit. But he triumphantly announced his return at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, logging a 4.39 40-yard dash, 41.5″ vertical, and a 10’8″ broad jump at his size.
Smith is an elite athlete. He’s dynamic, well-built, and he interviews well. If you have a list of boxes to check, Smith checks most of them. But looking more closely at the film, do the cosmetic factors translate on tape? Let’s dive in and discuss.
Nolan Smith Scouting Report
One of the holdovers of the historic 2021 Georgia defense, Smith flashed the ability to take over in 2022 before an injury prematurely ended his season. As he heads to the NFL, will professional evaluators have the same lofty opinion of his potential?
As his testing numbers at the NFL Combine exemplify, Smith is a tremendous athlete. He has an explosive first step and can surge downhill into blockers, leveraging his burst into power. He has the explosiveness to quickly throttle up and pierce through gaps, and he’s a springy mover in tight spaces. With his twitch, Smith can generate ample short-area momentum with little strain, force tackles to overset, and capitalize with his instant burst.
Not only is Smith explosive, but he also has exceptional lateral mobility and short-area agility. He’s a nimble mover with a naturally fast play pace and can stunt with rare quickness. He can also change directions quickly, is very light-footed in space, and has the athleticism and fluidity to drop into coverage and roam to the sideline. Additionally, he shows off the elite closing speed necessary to negate options and outside runs.
Interestingly, run defense is where Smith’s traits translate best — or at least most consistently. The Georgia EDGE is a phenomenal run defender who’s stronger than his frame suggests. He’s a dense, compact defender who can shock blockers at the point of attack with precise and forceful hands. He can effectively anchor and has the flexibility and natural balance to absorb blocks. Moreover, Smith can violently rip down opposing anchors after assuming control.
Smith has a tough, proactive mentality in run defense and isn’t afraid to square up larger blockers. But even more important in his competitive makeup is his natural leverage. Smith can easily get under blockers and inside their torso, using that positioning to control reps. He employs effortless leverage acquisition in run defense and can combine pad level and agility with violent hand usage to deconstruct blocks.
Already, Smith is a high-level run defender. But his athletic traits lend him impressive pass-rushing upside as well. The Georgia EDGE has the tools to be dynamic in that phase. Most notably, he flashes elite bend capacity — a foundational trait that not many edge defenders have in elite quantities.
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Smith can effortlessly reduce his surface area around the apex and accelerate while cornering. He can also pinch incredibly tight angles with his ankle flexion and accelerate through to invade the pocket. And when he is locked up, he’s shown he can use his short-area athleticism and flexibility to work himself free and pierce through tight creases.
Going further, Smith shows glimpses of multitasking, and he’s flashed the ability to use swift hand strikes and swipes while bending. His hands, at their best, are amped-up and possess surprising knock-back power.
While Smith’s arsenal is still in progress, he can effectively build off lateral bursts with quick swipes. And with his speed off the ball and serviceable length, he can work speed to power, long-arm his blocker’s outside shoulder, and stack rips in quick succession.
Smith isn’t perfect operationally yet, but he undoubtedly has the want-to. He shows off a hot motor both as a pass rusher and in pursuit. He plays with good awareness, as he’s able to read option plays effectively, follow the ball, and adapt accordingly.
Lastly, Smith has proven he can identify screens and shade out into coverage with his lateral athleticism, and he has more than enough speed to close gaps in this phase. With his mobility, the Georgia EDGE can be a nightmare for space runners in pursuit.
Smith’s Areas for Improvement
More than anything, Smith needs to keep refining his pass-rushing ability. While the Georgia EDGE has immense untapped potential, he also has visible room for improvement there. His hand usage can be cleaner and more coordinated, and he can stand to expand his pass-rushing arsenal. Smith doesn’t have a full set of moves and counters to employ consistently.
Smith is lean, a bit undersized, and lacks elite length. Yet, he can be too reliant on bull rushes and speed-to-power moves. He has trouble stacking counters with his initial plan, and he doesn’t have the kind of raw power to generate imbalance repeatedly.
He’s very effective when the tackle opens his chest. However, the Georgia EDGE can be stonewalled by linemen without proper momentum. His power rushes can be easily absorbed and neutralized by stronger blockers.
Going further, Smith’s length, while not a liability, is average. This not only puts a cap on his maximum power generation output but also makes him easy to outreach and can cause attempted counters to fail. Smith can be locked up by longer tackles, and if his initial speed-to-power moves don’t land, he can struggle to penetrate the pocket past that point.
With his lighter, shorter frame, Smith’s margin for error with the little details is smaller. The Georgia EDGE can make better use of attack angles coming downhill and can also be more consistent in attaining proper depth before attacking the pocket. Furthermore, he doesn’t always play to his full explosive capacity off the line. His stance can be more efficient, and he hesitates at times.
Among other things, Smith sometimes pops up too upright as a pass rusher. He can also be more consistent in applying his bend with synergy and loses his balance when attempting to bend around the edge at times.
Current Draft Projection for Georgia EDGE Nolan Smith
Smith has first-round athletic ability, and it’s very reasonable to consider him within the top 31 picks. Personally, I have a fringe top-50 grade on Smith. But if you have a vision for his role and development at the next level, the tools are almost second to none. In the right scheme and role, he could be a true defensive catalyst with more time to grow.
There is a bit of a disconnect between Smith’s buzz as a prospect and his on-field production. His brand of athleticism would normally bill him as a special pass-rushing threat because he has hyper-elite burst and bend capacity. But right now, he’s still relatively underdeveloped as a hand fighter. He can be more consistent and efficient employing his athleticism, and his speed to power, while solid, is hindered at times by his lack of elite mass and length.
Smith doesn’t have the great raw power that his teammate Travon Walker — a similarly raw prospect coming out — had in the 2022 cycle. Smith is more flexible and more amped-up as an athlete, but his leaner frame may require a longer acclimation period in the NFL. And his non-elite length is a limitation that’s here to stay.
MORE: 2023 NFL Draft EDGE Class
The silver lining for Smith is this: He’s already an excellent run defender. Even with his frame, he plays with violence and urgency, has excellent leverage acquisition, and uses his explosive athleticism and flexibility to dominate in congested areas. Run defense can be an area of concern for smaller EDGE prospects, but it’s a massive strength for Smith, and his athleticism translates extremely well in pursuit.
In a modern NFL where coaches are becoming more and more open to versatility, Smith could perfectly fit the mold of a hybrid outside linebacker with SAM and on-ball pass-rushing capabilities. His elite athleticism can buoy a drastic ascent as a pass-rushing threat, both one-on-one against tackles and as a blitzer. And that same athleticism can allow Smith to be a space defender, as well as destroy outside gaps in run defense.
Even after a long career at Georgia, Smith is still more of a projection than one would prefer. However, few, if any, prospects have the same athleticism, bend, and size-relative strength that Smith has. And in the right hands, he can be an invaluable defensive piece.