The Unpacking Future Packers Countdown is a countdown of 100 prospects that could be selected by the Green Bay Packers in the 2023 NFL draft.
Every summer Bruce Feldman releases an annual College Football Freaks list. It’s a list of college football players that are freakishly athletic and more often than not those names go on to put on a show at the NFL Scouting Combine.
In 2018, Rashan Gary was No. 1 on Feldman’s annual list. The Green Bay Packers selected the Michigan defensive lineman with the 12th overall pick and converted him into an edge rusher.
The selection at the time puzzled many in the media. Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst just signed Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith to lucrative free-agent deals. On top of that, Gary’s athletic traits didn’t lead to a ton of college production.
Fast forward to 2022, and Gary is not only one of Green Bay’s most important players, he’s one of the top edge rushers in the NFL.
In this year’s Freaks List, Mazi Smith, a fellow Michigan Wolverine was atop the list.
Smith is not of the same build or ilk as Gary. Smith is 54 pounds heavier than when Gary was playing at Michigan. Still, the 337-pound defensive tackle has the traits that many teams will want to get their hands on.
It’s no secret that Gutekunst likes freaky athletes and It’s because of those traits that Smith checks in at No. 98 in the Unpacking Future Packers.
Smith, a four-star recruit out of Michigan, recorded 37 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and four pass deflections in 2021. This past season, Smith recorded 48 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a 0.5 sack.
“The dude is large, and you can see that when you’re up close and personal with him,” Aaron McMann, the Michigan football beat writer for The Ann Arbor News, said. “There were several times this season where he was double-teamed, because opponents were clearly game-planning for him. I expect him to have a lengthy (and successful) NFL career.”
A big reason why Smith landed atop Feldman’s Freaks list is due to his strength. Smith is a powerful defensive tackle that can overwhelm offensive linemen at the point of attack with his raw power.
“The dude is big, strong and physical inside, and makes life hell for many interior offensive linemen,” McMann said. “Go back and turn on the film from some of Michigan’s games in Big Ten play. While he may not get to the quarterback, he impacts darn nearly every play.”
The Wolverines had the fifth-ranked run defense in the country this past season and Smith played a vital role in the team’s success against the run.
The former four-star recruit is a roadblock. He’s able to anchor and control his gap. He stays balanced through double teams. The former four-star recruit has strong, heavy hands and is able to create pushback to disrupt run plays behind the line of scrimmage. Smith is a smooth mover and has the lateral quickness and flexibility to make plays up and down the line of scrimmage.
“I’d say that is the strength of his game,” McMann said. “His Pro Football Focus score of 80.1 ranked second among Michigan’s defensive linemen, while Big Ten coaches and media both made Smith a consensus first-team all-conference selection. His bread and butter is defending the run, and he was a big part of Michigan’s top-10 rushing defense.”
Smith’s pass-rushing production won’t jump off the page. He finished his career with just less than one sack (0.5) With his power, athleticism and age (21), it’s part of his game that could develop at the next level.
Smith has initial quickness off the snap (needs to do it more consistently) and can get upfield quickly. With his power, he’s a pocket pusher and can drive offensive linemen back into the quarterback’s lap. According to PFF, Smith finished this past season with 25 pressures.
“It’s not a strength, but he does it well enough to be effective,” McMann said. “On Smith’s 25 pressures, he got one sack and had 19 hurries, per PFF, and those numbers could have been better if he wasn’t lined up at nose most of the year. I’m really curious to see how his role expands in the NFL, where one-on-one matchups are more common.”
Smith will have to answer questions about his recent gun charge. The Michigan defensive tackle was charged on Dec. 1 with carrying a concealed weapon without a valid concealed pistol license during an Oct. 7 traffic stop. Smith, a team captain, was upfront about the traffic stop during media availability prior to the College Football Playoffs and it may end up being a non-issue.
Fit with the Packers
Green Bay’s run defense yielded 2,372 yards on the ground, which ranked 26th overall. They gave up five yards per carry, which was tied for 29th in the league. Moral of the story; the Packers need to improve against the run and Smith could help turn things around.
Jarran Reed and Dean Lowry are both set to be free agents. Gutekunst will likely be in the market for a defensive lineman to add to the core of Kenny Clark, Devonte Wyatt, and TJ Slaton.
With his ability to two-gap, his athletic upside, and his age (21) Smith could be a potential target for the Packers in the second round.