Mazi Smith leaves the Michigan Wolverines as one of the most intriguing draft prospects in several years. To box score watchers, Smith is an unproductive gap-filler who only reached consensus All-Big Ten levels due to his size and positioning within a good defensive unit. On the statistical surface, these detractors have a logical case.
Here is how Smith stacks up next to Michigan’s last three defensive tackles drafted: Mo Hurst (2018), Ryan Glasgow (2017), and Willie Henry (2016).
Smith: 88 tackles, six tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, one forced fumble
Hurst: 130 tackles, 32 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, two forced fumbles (Round 5, Pick 140)
Glasgow: 77 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles (Round 4, Pick 138)
Henry: 85 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, zero forced fumbles (Round 4, Pick 132)
So why is Smith trending up as a potential late first-rounder? He is the rare defensive player whose impact cannot be measured by his own statistics. However, the reason the 2022 team generated more sacks than the 2021 team despite losing Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo to the NFL and not featuring a premier pass rusher is because of Smith.
Smith is a physical, big-bodied player (6-foot-3, 323 pounds) who erases running lanes for opposing offenses and creates mismatches along the line of scrimmage. He is a catalyst of chaos who consistently warrants double teams to free up rushers and allows coordinators to deploy an array of exotic blitzes around the attention he receives.
While Smith lacks elite hand fighting and counter moves, his strong power-to-punch technique allowed him to consistently control bigger interior offensive linemen in the Big Ten. At the next level, Smith will need to round out his game by developing as a pass rusher and improving his conditioning in late-game situations.
Given his strength — Smith posted the most bench press reps (34) of any defender at the NFL Combine — he is projected by some to play zero technique in the NFL, but his true talents lie as a one-tech or even a 2i player schemed to shut down the run. This strength coupled with his untapped potential as a pass rusher and his proven ability to stop the run have scouts rocketing him up draft boards.
Here are three likely landing spots for Smith ahead of the 2023 NFL Draft.
Round 1, Pick No. 26, Dallas Cowboys
This feels like the highest Smith could be selected and while it could be a reach, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah sees it similarly. Despite re-signing Jonathan Hankins, Smith could provide a youthful run-stuffing complement alongside Dallas’ youthful interior of Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore and Chauncey Golston.
Last season, the Cowboys were ranked No. 24 in ESPN’s run-stop-win rate, and Smith would immediately help them improve this metric. Furthermore, his presence would create more one-on-one opportunities for their elite edge rushing duo — Micah Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence — to get after the quarterback.
Round 1, Pick No. 29 New Orleans Saints
The Saints desperately need depth along the defensive line. Despite bringing in Khalen Saunders and Nathan Shepherd in free agency, they still have to replace four of their top five leading defensive linemen by snaps from last season (Marcus Davenport, Kentavius Street, David Onyemata, Shy Tuttle).
Smith could immediately contribute as a rotational player, especially in early-down situations. In 2021, the Saints ranked as the fourth-best run defense in the NFL allowing only 93.5 yards per game, but plummeted to No. 24 in 2022 by allowing just over 130.
Smith’s skill set fits the Saints’ needs of depth, scheme and impact like a glove.
Round 2, Pick No. 32 Pittsburgh Steelers
According to the NFL Mock Draft Database, which averages over 50 different media outlets, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the consensus destination for Smith. Even NFL Draft expert Todd McShay agrees. Despite extending Larry Ogunjobi and signing depth providers Armon Watts and Breiden Fehoko, the selection of Smith could allow the Steelers and veteran Cam Heyward to groom the Wolverine into an eventual replacement.
The Steelers pick at No. 17, 32 and 49, and investing in the future along the interior defensive line will help lay a foundation for life after Heyward.