Standing 6 feet 3 and weighing 337 pounds, Smith can be described as a load. In the NFL, players of this size (think of Brandon Williams) are often used as gap-fillers and space-eaters, taking on double teams and staying stout at the line of scrimmage.
But while Smith certainly has plenty of size, he also has an athletic skill set that very few men of his size possess.
Plugged the reported numbers here for Mazi Smith into @MathBomb's RAS machine (compared to Combine participants since 1987) and, uh, the hype train for Smith has left the station.— Zach Shaw (@_ZachShaw) August 10, 2022
(I used weightlifting websites to convert 22*325 on the bench to 44*225, so maybe not perfect) pic.twitter.com/BhCWcYj5jR
While athletic testing is not the end-all-be-all for defensive tackles, broad jumps and vertical jumps are still important. These tests help quantify how effectively a player can generate power through their ankles, knees, hips and core muscles from a static position — which resembles coming out of their stance after a snap.
Smith’s testing numbers were superior to many defensive tackles who have ever played the game — and all of the power and explosion the test suggest show up in his film.
While Smith has only recorded one career sack, his impact as an interior pass rusher was very important for Michigan’s defense. Using a combination of power and leverage, he blasted his way through guards to disrupt plays in the backfield.
Mazi Smith combines leverage and power on this pass rush. Displaces the RG into the backfield and crushes his way into the pocket. I like how he long arms into the guards chest and then works around to try to get the sack. pic.twitter.com/mr6kLcdzDt— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) February 11, 2023
On this play, Smith lines up as a 3-technique — outside the guard’s shoulder — and explodes off the snap, using a bull rush to blow the right guard back. Then he crosses the guard's face to penetrate through the opposite A-gap between the guard and center. While the guard appears to get away with a hold — grabbing Smith by the shoulders to try and turn him — Smith still crashes into the backfield, forcing the quarterback’s inaccurate throw.
Smith can also use his ferocious power rush to help him set up other moves in his arsenal. When guards start to expect the power rush, he will mix things up by throwing in some quick rushes.
Mazi Smith lined up in a wide 3tech. Strikes the chest of the RG and penetrates through the B gap. Good quickness of the ball and he shows power with his hands. The pass is just a little off b/c of the interior pressure. pic.twitter.com/G7gXsP1XRo— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) March 30, 2023
Here we see that the right guard wants to flat-set Smith, hoping to contact him early and prevent him building up his power rush. Smith displays great recognition, understanding that the guard would have more momentum to the outside. So he sells the bull rush with a quick hand throw — knocking the guard off-balance — before disengaging. Then he explodes through the A-gap to force an off-time throw.
In some plays, Smith even shows simultaneous power and quickness.
Mazi Smith lined up in a 2i. He returns to the opposite A gap on the snap and the C over compensates to the left. Smith creates leverage and drives him back into the pocket just enough to force an off-line throw. pic.twitter.com/cS9tO7lUbz— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) March 30, 2023
On this snap, Smith quickly returns to the opposite A-gap. The center does an adequate job of mirroring him; he’s ready to take on any speed rush or quick move. But Smith fires his left arm into the center's right shoulder, displacing him by pulling off a modified hump move. This takes advantage of a blocker's leaning momentum by stabbing the weak side shoulder to create penetration.
At the next level, Smith’s interior pass rushing will be adequate — but his bread and butter will be stuffing runs.
Given his size, Smith would project to be a 1-technique in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolos’s 4-3 Under scheme. In this position, Smith would frequently need to take on double teams — and stay stout at the line.
Smith eats the double team. The LT tries to hip down but no movement is created. Locks out and extends on the LG and does a good job to read where the ball is going. Really good job playing both gaps. Stout. pic.twitter.com/BqjrgM1ySE— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) February 11, 2023
On this play, TCU runs zone. The back side tackle and guard are responsible for blocking Smith and working their way up to the second level. Using his superior leverage, Smith holds his position on the line. Out-leveraged, the left guard can only try to prevent Smith from entering the backfield. The running back sees a lane open, but Smith quickly shuts it down by engulfing him.
Although he possesses the strength and size to consistently take on double-teams in the running game, Smith can also use his burst off the ball to fight through blocks in different gaps.
Smith lined up as a 2i, and the RG attempted to seal him while the C pulled around. A big hole opens up, but fights over the top of the seal block and prevents a big gain. Fights through a block and scheme disadvantage to make the stop. pic.twitter.com/g2dPA3KoIm— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) March 31, 2023
Right from the start of this play, Smith is at a schematic disadvantage: the right guard is attempting to pin him inside while the center pulls to become the lead blocker. The running back is a step away from what could be a big gain. But after working over the top, Smith disengages from his blocker in time to stop the ball carrier.
The bottom line
After teams started to emphasize defending against the league’s high-powered passing attacks, we have seen a re-emergence of run-heavy offenses to counter that approach. The Chiefs are among the teams that need retool their defensive interior, finding players who can complement their star defensive tackle Chris Jones.
At minimum, Smith can be a two-down run stopper in the NFL — but his power, leverage and burst off the ball could also make him a pass-rushing threat. If he ends up in Kansas City, Jones will get so much attention that Smith will be unlikely to face double-teams as a pass rusher.
While facing one-on-one matchups, Smith could use his power rushes to collapse the pockets from the inside to disrupt an offense’s timing — and give other defenders more opportunities for sacks.