The NFL Combine is a fun time for fans, who get to see some of the most athletic people in the world perform for a television audience. It’s also very important for teams, who not only get access to medical information and can learn about the prospects through interviews, but also use the athletic testing data to help in their evaluations.
While athletic testing is not the end-all-be-all of player evaluation, it is a critical aspect that helps confirm or raise questions about what teams have scouted on tape. Mental makeup matters too, but being a high-level athlete can allow a player to grow into his position in the NFL. RAS, or Relative Athletic Score, is a metric Kent Lee Platte developed that compares a player’s athletic testing data to other historical players at a given position.
We may only have one year of draft data from the current Minnesota Vikings regime, it’s clear that GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah values athletic testing. Every player the Vikings drafted last year had a 5.00 (50th percentile) or better RAS. We don’t have enough data to determine many thresholds for Adofo-Mensah yet, but one thing is clear: He wants players with elite 10-yard splits. Every one of the players the Vikings drafted last year had an 80th percentile or better 10-yard split. (Esezi Otomewo, a potential exception, did not clear this threshold at DE but did clear if compared against DTs, which was the role the Vikings asked him to play in 2022.)
In 2023, the Vikings have a new defensive coordinator in Brian Flores, who brings the Bill Belichick brand of defense with him. Flores’ aggressive style defense will be a significant change from Ed Donatell’s more passive scheme. There are a couple of prototypes Flores defenses have featured that Minnesota doesn’t currently have one the roster. One is an undersized edge rusher who has some coverage versatility. Day 1 of the 2023 NFL Combine featured the perfect player for this role: Nolan Smith from Georgia.
Smith showcased elite burst and speed. His blazing 4.39s 40-yard dash was second only to Amaré Barno among edge rushers in Combine history. His 1.52-second 10-yard split was in the 99th percentile of edge rushers. Smith’s vertical jump of 41.5″ and broad jump of 10’8″ showcased his explosiveness. The combination of his testing showed he was an elite athlete, even when penalizing him for his size.
Fortunately for Smith, Flores has regularly used undersized edge rushers throughout his coaching career. This started with Jamie Collins in New England, moved on to Kyle Van Noy, who he worked with in New England and Miami, and concluded with Andrew Van Ginkel, who Flores drafted in 2019. Georgia also has a recent history of developing similar players in Lorenzo Carter and Azeez Ojulari. Georgia HC Kirby Smart is a Nick Saban protégé, and Saban and Belichick worked closely together in developing their defenses. Smith would likely come to the Vikings with a good understanding of what Flores wants to do on defense, giving him a head start.
Looking at each of the testing profiles below, you can see a similarly sized group of players who also had high level athletic testing for the position:
Smith missed the end of his 2022 season with a torn pec, but his 2021 usage reveals a profile similar to Van Ginkel in 2021 under Flores. Smith played 71 snaps in coverage and 256 snaps as a pass rusher for the Bulldogs. Van Ginkel played 307 snaps as a pass rusher and 168 in coverage for the Miami Dolphins that year. Smith is better at rushing the passer than in coverage, but he has enough ability dropping back that it’s a legitimate change-up option for the defense. Because we know that’s something Flores asks of his players, it would make sense to add a defender with that skillset to the roster.
Run defense is another incredible aspect of Smith’s game. Despite his lack of size as an edge defender, he has the strength to hold his own and performed well against the top level of competition in the SEC. Smith recorded a 90.6 PFF grade in run defense in 2021, which was fourth in the entire country (975 players are ranked) among edge defenders.
Smith wins with physicality and good technique, succeeding while taking on difficult assignments because Georgia likes to play a man down in the box, as he explained during his Combine interview:
Smith will need to develop a pass rush repertoire to become a star at the NFL level, but his physical nature and energy will help him early in his career as he works to improve as a player. Here he is showcasing that elite athletic ability by chasing down Bryce Young, the potential No. 1-overall pick, on a critical two-point conversion attempt in the 2022 National Championship game:
If the Vikings stay put at 23, they have a shot Nolan Smith will fall to them. If he does, he is a player they should strongly consider as a great fit at edge rusher in Brian Flores’ scheme.