Nolan Smith, Georgia OLB | NFL Draft Scouting Report

Following in the footsteps of Azeez Ojulari, does Georgia OLB Nolan Smith have a 2022 NFL Draft scouting report worthy of hype?

Usually, the phrase “this team has a dozen NFL Draft prospects” resembles hyperbole. But it’s actually true for Georgia — and almost all of them reside on the defensive side of the ball. Georgia OLB Nolan Smith is just another player whose scouting report bears relevance in the 2022 NFL Draft. How does Smith profile, and where does he rank among his peers?

Nolan Smith NFL Draft Profile

  • Position: Edge rusher
  • School: Georgia
  • Current Year: Junior
  • Height: 6’3″
  • Weight: 235 pounds

Nolan Smith Scouting Report

It’s been written and said over a thousand times, but the Georgia defense is loaded with talent. A lot of the prospects on this unit began as promising recruits — but only one has the honor of being the highest-rated recruit in tow. That prospect is Nolan Smith. He’s not the only five-star on the Bulldogs, but he’s the team’s most renowned defensive recruit since 2015.

Comparatively, Smith hasn’t produced as much as his billing would imply. But beneath the sheer density of talent on the Bulldogs’ defense, he’s quietly had a very solid 2021 season — and he could have an eye on the 2022 NFL Draft. Has Smith begun to realize his potential, and how does he project at the NFL level?

Nolan Smith’s athletic profile

Smith might go on to put up some of the most ridiculous testing numbers in this class — if he declares. At 6’3″, 234 pounds, the Georgia OLB had a 4.51 40-yard dash, a 4.15 shuttle, and a 39.6-inch vertical on record out of high school. He doesn’t always play to that athletic maximum, but there are definite traces of that athleticism on tape.

Smith has a great first step. He can explode downhill into blockers and leverage that burst into power. With that burst also comes exceptional lateral mobility and agility. When he’s on his game, Smith can stunt with rare quickness. He’s a nimble mover with a naturally fast pace. That provides him plenty of upside as a pass rusher and great versatility.

Smith has the athleticism to drop into coverage and roam to the sideline. He can rotate from a rushing position to coverage, and he’s fairly light-footed in space. Additionally, Smith is a twitchy player. He can generate ample momentum without much strain. With his twitch, he can force tackles to over-set, then surge inside with his burst. The Bulldogs product also has the closing speed to respond quickly to options and outside runs.

While Smith’s frame is somewhat light, he is still fairly dense. He can bounce off contact and shock blockers at the point of attack.

Execution beyond the physical traits

Smith’s athleticism is easily one of his most appealing qualities, but the Georgia OLB isn’t a pure project. Especially in run defense, Smith is an impressive player.

Against the run, Smith anchors surprisingly well. He has the flexibility to absorb power, and he’s extremely well-balanced. His base can flex without collapsing, allowing him to stand his ground. Furthermore, Smith is proactive in run defense. He squares up with larger linemen and can rip down anchors with violent hands.

Glimpses of that violence appear on pass-rushing reps as well. Smith can violently rip anchors while bending, and he’s flashed multitasking ability on the edge. He has promising ankle flexion and the capacity to bend around the corner and get low as he accelerates. When rushing, Smith provides flashes of precise, targeted hand usage. His hands are amped-up but also surprisingly heavy for his size when they connect.

Going further, Smith possesses solid awareness. He can read options and key in on the ball. And with his awareness and lateral agility, he can identify screens and shade out into coverage.

Areas for improvement

Smith has a lot of upside, but there’s still some work to undergo before he realizes his full potential. Most notably, Smith’s pass rushing has plenty of room for refinement. His hand usage can be cleaner and more composed at times. The want-to is there, but Smith needs to polish up his all-around execution.

Smith has some moves in his pass-rushing arsenal, but he can do a better job applying them consistently. He needs to improve his hand moves and approach. The Georgia OLB can be more consistent attaining proper depth before attacking the pocket. He also pinches his rushes too far inside at times. Moreover, Smith can make better use of attack angles coming downhill.

Smith doesn’t always play to his full explosive capacity off the line. He sometimes appears tentative or unsure. As a result, he slows up as he heads into contact, extinguishing his momentum. It doesn’t help that Smith lacks elite natural power. When he lacks momentum, he can get stonewalled by larger linemen. Smith’s frame is light by NFL standards, and while he has decent length, it’s not elite.

Among other things, Smith is inconsistent as a bender. He has the capacity but doesn’t often accelerate around the edge. His rushes often stall at the apex. Thus, he still needs more synergy to multitask with consistency. Lastly, he loses his balance at times when trying to bend around the edge.

Nolan Smith’s 2022 NFL Draft scouting report overview

As is often the case with heralded recruits, Smith’s 2022 NFL Draft scouting report is brimming with potential. The Georgia OLB flashes great explosiveness and bend for his 6’3″ frame, and he has more natural strength than you’d expect. Still, Smith can get out-muscled by larger, stronger tackles, and his hand usage remains a work in progress.

More often than not, Smith plays with energy, and his hands are noticeably violent. But without an imposing frame or elite play strength, Smith will need to improve his placement, positioning, and timing if he wants to be a consistent pass-rushing threat in the NFL.

If there’s something Smith has going for him, it’s that he’s not only a pass-rushing specialist — like so many in his mold are. Smith can absolutely hold his own in run defense. Combine that with his upside on passing downs, and there’s legitimate three-down talent here.

Until Smith further refines his game, he’s probably a mid-round pick with Day 2 upside. His testing numbers could push him up, but he’s far from the only high-level athlete in this class. Nevertheless, in odd-front schemes where he can play standing up, he’s worth the investment.

Nolan Smith’s Player Profile

Smith’s career has always been defined by his physical potential — and the constant journey toward reaching that potential. Smith was a consensus five-star recruit in the 2019 class. He was the No. 2 overall prospect on ESPN’s board and the No. 1 overall prospect on 247 Sports.

It goes without saying that Smith was a highly coveted player. A product of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Smith had scholarship offers from Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Florida. But the promising prospect ultimately felt that he fit best with the Bulldogs.

Smith’s career at Georgia

Immediately as a freshman, Smith found a role on Georgia’s defense. He played in all 14 games, accumulating 18 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and a pass deflection. He won Co-Defensive Newcomer of the Year for his team, reinforcing the promise that made him such an exciting addition.

The Georgia OLB came into 2020 with increased expectations opposite linebacker Azeez Ojulari, but Smith didn’t quite take the desired leap. Smith remained a rotational player and matched his previous totals with 2.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. However, when Ojulari was selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, a spot opened up for Smith to ascend.

Smith hasn’t been the most productive Georgia defender, but he’s still been a notable part of the unit’s success. In 10 starts, Smith has amassed 38 total tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. Alongside Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, Travon Walker, and Nakobe Dean, he’s made life miserable for opposing offenses.

Nolan Smith’s NFL Draft ascension

The 2021 edge class is stacked, and that doesn’t play in Smith’s favor. His athletic upside is undeniable, but at this point, there’s still more room for refinement — especially as a pass rusher. There are promising flashes, but Smith needs more consistency if he wants to earn a premier role at the NFL level.

There’s a chance Smith could return to school and bank on a breakout in his senior season. At the same time, however, Smith has shown enough as a run defender and upside as a pass rusher to earn some interest. And his testing numbers should only magnify his appeal.

Ian Cummings is a Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can find his writing here and follow him on Twitter: @IC_Draft.


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