Coming off a rather disappointing 8-9 season, the New England Patriots have plenty of potential for improvement. They already addressed some areas of need so far this offseason, but will now look to add long-term stability and additional playmaking ability through the NFL Draft. With 11 selections in hand, Bill Belichick and company are in a good position to do just that.
How they will ultimately use those picks remains to be seen. However, there are several players who would fit what they are looking for both at positions of need and at other spots all over the roster.
In our Patriots Draft Targets series, we will be taking a close look at some prospects we believe might be falling into that “fit” category. Today, let’s assess a projected first-round edge.
Name: Nolan Smith
Position: Defensive edge/Outside linebacker
Opening day age: 22
Size: 6’2 1/8”, 238 lbs, 81” wing span, 32 5/8” arm length, 9” hand size
Workout numbers: 4.39s 40-yard dash, 41 1/2” vertical jump, 10’8” broad jump, 9.23 Relative Athletic Score
The University of Georgia was the only logical landing spot for Smith. A multi-sports athlete growing up in Savannah, he already became a player to watch during his time at Calvary Day School and later the IMG Academy in Bradeton, Florida. He starred as a running back and defensive lineman but once he started focusing on defense, it became clear he would be a highly sought-after recruit for the college level.
Indeed, the five-star prospect was ranked No. 1 in the 2019 recruiting class. He received offers from several high-profile schools such as Alabama and Clemson, but committed to Georgia — a school that had already offered him a scholarship as a freshman at Cavalry. He ended up spending four seasons with the Bulldogs, appearing in 46 games and registering 114 tackles as well as 11.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception, and a blocked punt. He did, however, miss his final six games in 2022 due to a pectoral injury.
Expected round: 1st (Top 20)
Strengths: His 9.23 Relative Athletic Score is already impressive, but it does not fully do Smith justice. He has outstanding movement skills, and offers both elite speed (4.39 40) and short-area agility. He can attack offensive tackle with burst and force them to rush through their technique, making them vulnerable to his speed rush around the edge. He combines it with the ability to quickly change direction, which makes him a threat on stunts and allows him to expose players overcommitting to one side when trying to block him.
While his sack number does not stand out, he has shown that he has the necessary bend to get low around the edge as a pass rusher. As a run defender, he has the power to set a firm edge and close lanes ball-carriers might want to work with. Smith also seemingly never runs cold: he is a high-motor player who goes full gas at every opportunity. He additionally is a scheme-flexible player who can attack from multiple techniques, play both in a two- and three-point stance, and has seen regular playing time on special teams.
#UGA EDGE/OLB Nolan Smith— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) April 19, 2023
Scheme specific player that has violent and heavy hands at the POA. Very physical run defender. Sudden burst out of the starting blocks, but needs to continue to add moves to his repertoire. pic.twitter.com/IZ7amNRiro
Weaknesses: Smith’s RAS score would likely be significantly higher if not for his lack of size. His height (6’2 1/8”) and arm length (32 5/8”) ranks in the 15 and 17 percentiles for edge defenders, respectively, with his weight (238 lbs) only in the 2 percentile category. For as impressive an athlete that he is, his lack of a sturdy frame might become an issue at the next level, and allow rangier blockers to take him out of plays. He is a hit-or-miss player as a pass rusher, who either gets home or swallowed up and doesn’t consistently move the pocket.
Smith also needs to keep working on his technique and approach to rushing the passer. He oftentimes plays overly aggressive, possibly to make up for his size deficiencies, which leads to him not challenging linemen best suited to his strengths; his pass rush moves are all over the place at times, and he needs to learn how to win through hand usage and a clear plan rather than relying on his elite athletic traits. His production also does not necessarily scream “blue-chip prospect.”
What would be his role in 2023? Due to his ability to defend the run and rush the passer, Smith should become an impact player from the get-go. If so, he would fill a starter-level or top-rotational role along the New England defensive edge; filling the top spot opposite Pro Bowler Matthew Judon and serving in a rotation with pass-rush specialist Josh Uche. He would primarily play as a stand-up outside linebacker from the 5-technique outwards.
What is his growth potential? The biggest question mark about Smith as a prospect is his size, and there is little he can do to change that (although working in an NFL environment and with proper strength and nutrition plans should help him at least maintain his weight). That said, he can become more refined as a player from a technical perspective. He has the tools to become a multi-year starter and potential Pro Bowler on the edge.
Does he have positional versatility? Smith’s athleticism makes him an interesting candidate to fill a versatile role, but he is clearly best suited to play as an outside linebacker. Within the context of that position, however, he would be used in a multitude of ways: he can go after the passer, play the run, and drop back into zone coverage, and might even be able to play both on and off the ball.
What adding him would mean for the depth chart: Smith would be a lock to make the Patriots roster due to his draft status and immense potential, which would have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. Josh Uche would likely not be asked to increase his early-down snaps, while the roster security of the rotational depth options would decrease quite a bit: both Anfernee Jennings and Ronnie Perkins making the team with Smith in the fold seems unlikely.
Why the Patriots make sense as a landing spot: The Patriots made the most out of their edge position in 2022, but adding another player to complement Matthew Judon especially on early downs is an under-the-radar need. Add the fact that Josh Uche is headed for unrestricted free agency next offseason, and you might get a perfect storm for New England investing a Day 1 pick in Smith.
Patriots contact: Top-30 visit
Verdict: Despite being undersized, Smith is an enticing prospect who should be able to find immediate success in the NFL. He would fit what the Patriots are doing on defense, and add some long-term stability to what is a position of need. The question is whether or not the team views the situation with the same urgency relative to other spots such as cornerback or offensive tackle. If so, the 22-year-old definitely is a player to keep an eye on in the first round.
Would Smith be a good fit for the Patriots? Where do you think he will be drafted? Please head down to the comment section to discuss!