The Las Vegas Raiders could use some help at defensive tackle and one player who is likely toward the top of their NFL Draft board as a potential mid-round pick is Michigan’s Mazi Smith.
Smith made headlines this summer as the No. 1 player on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List with his unparalleled combination of strength and athleticism. Feldman noted that the Wolverine close-grip bench presses 550 pounds and runs the three-cone drill in 6.95 seconds while weighing about 325 pounds. For context, the latter would have ranked sixth at the NFL Combine among wide receivers.
In full transparency, Smith chose to sit out the majority of the drills during his workout in Indianapolis, so those numbers above are coming from Feldman’s sources, but they are impressive nonetheless.
The problem with the Michigan product is that while he’s clearly a physical specimen, that hasn’t translated to much on-field production with only five TFL and a half sack in 28 games over the last two seasons. While he did manage to rack up 25 pressures in 2022 which ranked sixth among Big 10 defensive tackles, he also had the second-most pass rush snaps and his win rate (11.4 percent) was tied for 11th.
Granted, Smith did have better numbers as a run defender, recording the fifth-best PFF run defense grade (81.3) and ranking fourth with 27 defensive stops at an 11.6 percent clip (sixth-best).
We’ve learned over the years that the NFL places a bigger weight on traits than production when it comes to the draft, so let’s take a peek at what that looks like for the Wolverine.
Mazi Smith with a nice open field tackle for DT pic.twitter.com/QC2IQysOfl— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 20, 2023
I wanted to start with this first clip because while it’s outside of the trenches, I think it highlights Smith’s athleticism well.
Iowa runs a tunnel screen and Smith is quick to recognize it and start working toward the sideline in pursuit. While he’s not going to be competing in any 100-meter races, he does show good speed for a defensive tackle to be in a position to make the play when the wide receiver is forced to turn upfield as he’s the first box defender to get to the spot.
From there, he breaks down to avoid getting juked out by the more athletic skill player and makes a nice open-field tackle for a three-yard gain. You’re not going to find many 325-pound defensive tackles who can make a play in space like this.
Good example of Mazi Smith’s power at the point of attack pic.twitter.com/x7ifmhVw4N— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 20, 2023
Onto the more functional clips.
Smith is lined up as a 0-technique nose tackle but will be slanting into the strong side A-gap (to the right) post-snap as the middle linebacker blitzes on the weak side. While his get-off is late, this is a good example of the power he has.
Wisconsin is running power which means Smith has to get his hands up quickly as he’s slanting into the down block from the guard. He makes the first significant contact with his hands and maintains a wide base at the point of contact which is hard to do when he’s moving and closing the gap for the guard.
Then the Michigan product’s strength comes into play as he’s able to stand up the offensive linemen and get extension. That allows him to escape the block and go get a TFL after the backer slows the running back down.
Mazi Smith with a nice arm-over move to escape and make the play pic.twitter.com/Ozk3lrOD67— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 20, 2023
Smith is lined up in the strong side A-gap this time as Penn State runs duo. Again, he’s going to take on a down block from the guard, and he’s quick to recognize it and get his hands up to take on the block.
At the point of attack, look at how Smith gets his hands inside the offensive lineman’s, which helps him gain control of the block and stop the lineman’s momentum. Now, Smith is responsible for the strong side A-gap here and he takes a risk by working into the B-gap to get off the block.
However, because he has great hand placement and strength, he’s able to gamble and win by escaping with an arm-over move and making the tackle for a short gain.
Mazi Smith with a nice hand-swipe to destroy the QB pic.twitter.com/tH58u88feB— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 20, 2023
Moving on to some pass-rush clips.
The Wolverine is lined up over the center but Iowa slides the protection to the right and he slants toward the left guard which allows him to get a one-on-one block. His use of hands is excellent here as you can see him catch the guard’s punch and win with a hand-swipe move.
The center then comes to help but Smith fights through the contact and closes on the quarterback to deliver a big hit. This rep would make Al Davis happy as the other team’s quarterback went down, and went down hard!
Beautiful club-by move from Mazi Smith pic.twitter.com/zcnStbbNt0— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 20, 2023
Here, we’ll get to see Smith use some of his strength as a pass-rusher.
Michigan runs a simulated pressure with Nos. 12 and 15 on the line of scrimmage pre-snap but faking the rush and dropping back into coverage, which allows Smith to get a one-on-one block again.
Post-snap, he stems his rush wide to the right to create some space to the left and set up his move. Then, his power comes into play as he uses a club move to get the center off-balance and win the rep, partially due to the extra room he created during the stem phase of the rush.
Now, I’d like to see Smith finish the move by ripping through the offensive lineman with his right or outside arm to help him stay balanced and get a clean win. However, the center does intentionally trip him and that’s the primary reason why this rep isn’t a sack in this specific circumstance.
Love the push-pull move by Mazi Smith, not a fan of the finish pic.twitter.com/zvMR5DVmze— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 20, 2023
We’ll end with another nice pass rush rep.
Smith gets single-blocked again and post-snap, we see another example of how quick his hands are as the guard uses a jump set but Smith still makes the first significant contact with his punch. Then, he starts to work outside to set up the inside move and that’s when his strength takes over as he puts the guard on the ground with a violent push-pull move.
Obviously, this isn’t a perfect rep as Smith doesn’t break down in the backfield and misses the sack as the quarterback side-steps the pressure. He needs to be more under control to finish the play, but if there’s any pressure at all from the edges—like there would be if say Maxx Crosby was on the field—then this would be a much easier play to make.
With edge pressure, the quarterback would be forced to step up in the pocket—and into the defensive tackle’s lap—instead of having nothing but grass (or turf) to roll out to. In other words, Smith does his job and this play shows up on the stat sheet if he has more help from other pass-rushers.
An article like this is difficult to articulate Smith’s weaknesses because he does put together some great highlights. However, my biggest frustration with him is he’d dominate on one rep and then have several others where I’d wonder if he was even still on the field.
It’s not like Smith was getting dominated or even “losing” on those quiet reps per se, but he just kind of blended in and wasn’t a factor which is why his production was so lackluster. That became frustrating when watching full games, especially for someone with his physical profile who, again, show flashes of dominance. The consistency just wasn’t there for someone I’d spend a Top 40 pick on.
He’ll probably end up getting drafted higher than I’m projecting him because he does have good traits. But to me, the Raiders would be better off going in a different direction with the 38th selection of the draft. However, if Smith is still available later and/or Las Vegas adds a pick in say the 50s, the Wolverine is worth the gamble to me.