Who's the One Player To Watch At the Combine?

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Less than three weeks after Super Bowl LVII, the NFL calendar immediately turns to the 2023 season with the Scouting Combine kicking off today in Indianapolis. Executives, scouts, and coaches will flock to Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend to watch some of the world’s best athletes work out in spandex shorts and cutoffs, all while trying to evaluate how their athletic traits will translate to when they’re wearing shoulder pads and helmets on Sundays.

The drama started earlier than expected this year when news broke early Wednesday morning that Georgia defensive tackle and projected No. 1-overall pick Jalen Carter was issued a warrant for his arrest stemming from a tragic mid-January motor vehicle incident that took the lives of Carter’s teammate Devin Willock and Bulldogs recruiting staffer Chandler LeCroy. With Carter returning to Athens, Ga. as a result of this legal matter, the focus will now shift elsewhere as the defensive linemen and edge rushers take the stage on Thursday.

Similar to last year’s draft, the ’23 class is reportedly deep at edge rusher. Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr., Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson, Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness, Clemson’s Myles Murphy, Georgia’s Nolan Smith, Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV, and Auburn’s Derick Hall are all expected to go in or near the first round of April’s draft. And as we witnessed in last year’s draft process with former Georgia Bulldog edge rusher Travon Walker, a jaw-dropping workout in spandex can go a long way in boosting a player’s stock in advance of the draft. (I wrote about Walker before the 2022 Combine.)

Considering the Minnesota Vikings’ immediate and long-term needs at all three levels of its defense, wide receiver, and potentially quarterback, Skoldiers could be plenty busy over the coming days with their own evaluations about who Kwesi Adofo-Mensah should select with their first pick.

I understand cornerback is a widely discussed position of need for the Vikings, with its top three corners from last year — Patrick Peterson, Chandon Sullivan, and Duke Shelley — currently free agents. However, Minnesota properly forecasted this obstacle in last year’s draft, with second- and fourth-round selections in Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans. Let’s not forget, 2020 third-round pick Cameron Dantzler is still under contract in 2023. If the Vikings can re-sign Peterson and/or Shelley for 2023, the cornerback concerns are far less daunting than they appear to be at the moment. Especially when you factor in new defensive coordinator Brian Flores‘ propensity for success in New England while relying heavily on corners who were undrafted free agents.

Yes, edge rusher is still a top-three premium NFL position. However, it’s their counterparts on the interior of the defensive line that have my attention in this year’s Combine. Although there’s still a certain unappealing stigma associated with the position, the NFL’s recent trends prove that getting a game-wrecker in the middle of your front translates to reaching the pinnacle. The past four Super Bowl winners included defensive tackles in Chris Jones, Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea, and Aaron Donald. All four were former top-37 picks in their respective NFL drafts and have combined for 19 Pro Bowls throughout their careers.

This year’s class of rookie defensive tackles features a mixed bag of sorts. Aside from Carter, Pittsburgh’s Calijah Kancey, while undersized at 280 lbs., was arguably the best pass-rushing specialist from the interior in all of college football. Out of 63 defensive tackles in this year’s class that played 250-plus pass-rush snaps last season, Kancey recorded the highest pressure rate at 17.1%. The light frame and Pittsburgh Panther lineage makes for an easy Aaron Donald comparison. Coming out of high school in 2020, Clemson’s Bryan Bresee was rated as the No. 1 player in the country by both 247 and Rivals. However, Bresee’s production throughout his three years as a Tiger didn’t live up to the hype that was bestowed upon him. Bresee missed most of the 2021 season after suffering a torn ACL, and a kidney infection forced him to miss four games this past season.

Despite being currently projected as a fringe first-round or early-to-mid second-round pick, Michigan’s Mazi Smith is the one player Vikings fans should keep close tabs on during Thursday’s Combine workouts. In terms of production, Smith was one of college football’s premier run defenders while operating as the nose tackle in the Wolverines’ 3-4 defensive scheme.

What differentiates Smith from someone like former Georgia Bulldog and 13th-overall pick in last year’s draft, Jordan Davis, is that he’s as close to an every-down player as you’ll find at defensive tackle. This past season, Smith played 69.6% of Michigan’s defensive snaps. In 2021, Davis played on just 37.7% of Georgia’s defensive snaps, while playing in all 15 games. And despite Smith’s calling card coming against opposing rushing attacks, he still provides reasons to be encouraged about his ability to create pressure from the interior on passing downs. Over the past two seasons, Smith recorded 46 pressures and a pressure rate of 6.9%.

The sheer anticipation of the former Michigan Wolverine showcasing his unique athleticism makes Smith’s workout at Thursday’s Combine different from the rest of the defensive linemen. Coming into the 2022 college football season, The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman anointed Smith as the No. 1 player on his annual Freaks List. In Feldman’s piece, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach, Ben Herbert, said that Smith is the strongest defensive lineman he’s seen in 25 years in the business. Which is saying a lot considering Herbert helped develop former Wolverine first round picks Rashan Gary, Kwity Paye, and Aidan Hutchinson.

Feldman also included Smith’s unique burst in the piece, which features a clip of the defensive tackle participating in Michigan’s reactive plyo stairs test.

Last year’s draft process was the latest example of NFL decision makers possessing a particular weak spot for big-bodied dudes doing superhuman things while wearing spandex, as evidenced by Travon Walker‘s and Jordan Davis‘ Combine workouts. And the rise they both experienced on the draft board as a result. When you combine Smith’s production for one of college football’s defenses over the past two years, it’s easy to understand how the football world could fall head over heels for Smith if/when he wows with his workout.

With free-agent defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson turning 29 on Tuesday, the Vikings could stand to benefit from identifying a player like Smith to help build sustainability with their front — even if Minnesota decides to bring Tomlinson back in 2023. And now that Flores is in the building, it’s important to remember that his inaugural draft pick as an NFL head coach with the Miami Dolphins was run-stuffing Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins with the 13th-overall pick in 2019.

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