As the Cleveland Browns continue to showcase some of the worst defensive tackle play in NFL history, the league has been shifting to being a more ground based league. As defenses have gotten smaller and faster to deal with offenses that win in space, offenses are starting to adapt in the other direction. Speed and spacing is still a critical component in NFL offenses, but teams are running plays that isolate and attack individual players in smaller fronts.
While the Browns defense is an abomination, their offense is part of that trend. The Browns still utilize a wide zone scheme, but they are incorporating more power, counter and traps to expand the ways they can attack opponents and create running lanes. More double teams and pullers to create numbers advantage and blow holes open.
Bigger base ends and two-gapping defensive tackles are becoming more sought after. The Browns have the former with players like Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and Alex Wright. They need to continue investing there, but they don't have anyone who can effectively take on double teams on the interior.
Likewise, the amount of teams using split high safeties that are leaving more space in the middle of the field, the more demand there is for two-gappers to protect that area of the field as well as the linebackers.
Being big and difficult to move only goes so far, however. The players that are shooting up boards and getting paid lucrative contracts are also athletic and able to make plays as opposed to just take on blocks.
One player that stands to benefit in this environment and could be a good fit for the Browns is Mazi Smith, a defensive tackle out of Michigan.
Weight: 337 lbs
Smith's more known for his prowess in the weight room, being the top player on Bruce Feldman's freaks list than his play on the field to this point. Smith is massive, dense with remarkable strength and more speed than some might expect. He's got a good burst and demonstrates more range than one might think.
Smith is still just 21 years old and won't be 22 until June after he's drafted.
2022: 23 solo tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, .5 sacks in 14 games
2021: 15 solo tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass deflections in 14 games
Smith's production doesn't offer much in impact plays behind the line of scrimmage, but his solo tackles for 2022 are notable for the position he plays. Too many are quick to dismiss them but teams need their defensive linemen to get off blocks and make stops. The fact that he has a good number of solo tackles suggests he's able to extend his arms and rid himself of a blocker in order to make the tackle in order to make a play. That's valuable when plays are coming right at him, but also helps in getting more hats to the football to close down running lanes and ensure tackles are made.
The lack of sacks would suggest Smith is not able to generate much pressure. He will get into the backfield but much of the time, he's flying past the quarterback, unable to adjust to breakdown and make the play. It'd be preferable to have him secure more of those plays, but there are times when avoiding Smith results in being sacked by one of his teammates. At the very least, he's getting the quarterback off his spot and out of rhythm.
Smith is still a work in progress and there's some inconsistency with his effectiveness. Given his sheer physical talent, it feels like he should dominate opponents more often than he does. He likes to stand up and swim opponents which he has success because opponents are so focused on withstanding his power. It can also have him simply play high, but his center of gravity and ballast often negate it as an issue at the collegiate level. Smith plays a ton of snaps for the Wolverines. Some of that inconsistency might be a product of simply being on the field so much, a result of fatigue. With a smaller overall snap count at the next level, the quality of his reps may increase.
Why the Browns Could Like Him
The Browns have been hesitant to acquire defensive linemen who lack speed. Smith possesses the size and strength this team needs and the athleticism they require. That skill set is critical to be able to deal with double teams and be viable when potentially isolated as teams utilize more read concepts and incorporate the quarterback as part of their rushing attacks such as the Baltimore Ravens. His ability to shed blocks and make tackles is valuable and he still can be viable in attacking the quarterback.
It's difficult to displace Smith vertically. Even when he does give up ground, his center of gravity enables him to recover and fight for control of the situation. Smith is not someone who often ends up on the ground, so he forces opponents to earn it when they try to move him, which would be helpful for linebackers who play behind him.
Smith projects best at nose but he does have some experience at the 3-tech. That's where his athleticism can be handy and allows him to be part of a jumbo front. He's also pretty good running down the line while continuing to gain ground. Smith may not be a player with sideline to sideline range but when plays flow outside, he can work across, eliminating cutback lanes and occasionally chasing down plays from behind.
If Smith can do nothing else but held the Browns put opponents into obvious passing situations, enabling the defense to attack the quarterback out of sub packages, that would be success. Should he be able to do that plus disrupt the quarterback on run downs, he could be an impact player.
The Bottom Line
In an NFL more geared towards being able to stop more gap runs, Mazi Smith's timing might be perfect. His ability to hold up at the point of attack while showing enough athleticism to track ball carriers down and attack the quarterback could make him a hot commodity and the Browns are likely to be among a host of teams that will be interested.