Five Georgia defenders went in Round 1 of the 2022 NFL Draft. It was a historic class, but the Bulldogs aren’t done pumping out talent. Early on, Georgia EDGE Nolan Smith is similarly viewed in the early-round conversation with his 2023 NFL Draft scouting report. Is the first-round hype warranted for Smith? And if so, how high can he go?
Nolan Smith NFL draft profile
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 acquisition.
Smith was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2019 class. A product of the famed IMG Academy, Smith had a documented 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 and oozed 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.
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. Smith has been productive with Georgia, but there’s still a sense he hasn’t quite lived up to his No. 1 recruit billing. With the mass exodus of defensive talent, 2022 could be his chance to change that.
- Position: EDGE
- School: Georgia
- Current Year: Senior
- Height/Weight: 6’3″, 235 pounds
Nolan Smith scouting report
One of the holdovers of the historic 2021 Georgia defense, Smith will be relied upon to make an impact with the Bulldogs in 2022. And a strong campaign could potentially vault him into the early rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft.
As his testing numbers from high school show, 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 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 necessary closing speed to negate options and outside runs.
Interestingly, run defense is where Smith’s traits translate best at the moment. 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 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, then use 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 excellent bend capacity. Smith can reduce his surface area around the apex and accelerate while cornering. He can also pinch incredibly tight angles with his ankle flexion.
Going further, Smith shows glimpses of multitasking ability, 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.
Notably, Smith has the want-to and 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, the Georgia EDGE 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.
Smith’s areas for improvement
More than anything, Smith needs to keep refining his pass-rushing ability. The Georgia EDGE 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 and a bit undersized, yet he can be too reliant on bull rushes. He has trouble stacking counters with his initial moves, and he doesn’t have the kind of raw power to generate imbalance repeatedly. The Georgia EDGE can be stonewalled by linemen without proper momentum, and his power rushes can be easily absorbed and neutralized by stronger blockers.
Going further, Smith’s length is average and puts a cap on his maximum power generation output. He can be locked up by longer tackles as a result. 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 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 upside. It’s reasonable to place him in the late-first range in early mock drafts. But right now, Smith is more of a Day 2 prospect. There’s a reasonable scenario where Smith plays himself into the first-round range over the course of the 2022 campaign. However, there’s work for him to do before he gets there.
One could look at Smith’s former teammate Travon Walker as an example of a raw pass rusher who went exceedingly high because of his physical upside. But while Smith’s ceiling is high, he doesn’t have the same universal ability that Walker had. Smith is lighter than Walker. He’s not nearly as powerful, and his arms are much shorter. The majority of Smith’s upside comes from his athleticism. But even there, he can be more consistent and efficient employing his athleticism as a pass rusher.
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 like Smith, but it’s a massive strength for him.
Thus, the area where Smith needs to improve is one where improvement can be reasonably projected. Smith has the elite athleticism to buoy an ascent as a pass rusher. If he can become more detailed and consistent with his hands and effectively maximize his tools, he has the skill set to be an impact player as a 3-4 OLB with two-point and three-point capabilities.