Dane Brugler’s 2023 mock draft linked Michigan DT Mazi Smith and Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker to the New Orleans Saints. Either of them would be a good fit:
Time flies by, doesn’t it? The college football regular season has wrapped up, with team shifting focus to conference title matchups and bowl game exhibitions — with many prospects considering whether to declare for the 2023 NFL draft. So it’s a good time to take stock of the upcoming draft class and see who might be a good fit for the New Orleans Saints.
The Athletic’s Dane Brugler published his latest mock draft for 2023, including picks for teams currently without a first round selection — like the Saints, who aren’t scheduled to get on the board until the second round. Brugler is one of the most clued-in draft analysts around and always puts a lot of thought into his work, so it’s worth tuning in when he has something to say. And he has the Saints addressing one of their top needs in Michigan Wolverines defensive tackle Mazi Smith:
“The Saints are in quarterback purgatory right now, so we could always see a quarterback here (Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker?). If New Orleans doesn’t like the second-round QB options, defensive tackle is another potential need. The No. 1 player on Bruce Feldman’s preseason Freaks List for a reason, Mazi Smith has an impressive mix of athleticism and power and is expected to be an early second-round pick.”
We recently picked Smith ourselves in a seven-round mock draft simulator, though that scenario had him falling to the fourth round. Brugler’s take is informed by what he’s hearing from scouts and personnel around the league, so we should anticipate Smith to go off the board much more sooner than we maybe initially assumed. So what’s so appealing about him?
For one thing, the Saints don’t have a single defensive tackle under contract for 2023. Not one. David Onyemata and Shy Tuttle will both be unrestricted free agents, while Kentavius Street and Malcolm Roach are both expected to be restricted free agents (giving the Saints more options in retaining them). But for now they don’t have any players at the position signed for next season, so investing an early draft pick there makes sense.
And Smith would be worth it. He’s maybe the best run defender in the country and definitely one of the strongest players in college football. He’s got unique athleticism and the work ethic to match. Just look at his numbers from Feldman’s preseason Freaks List, which Brugler cited:
“The 6-foot-3, 337-pound senior has rare power and agility. So rare, in fact, it’s hard to find the right superlative to begin with. But let’s start with this: Smith does 22 reps on the bench press, but that’s with 325 (not 225). He close-grip benched 550 pounds. He vertical-jumps 33 inches. He broad-jumped 9-4 1/2. Smith, who had 37 tackles last season, has clocked a 4.41 shuttle time, which would’ve tied the best by any defensive tackle at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, and it would’ve been better than any defensive tackle weighing 310 pounds or more in the past decade. His 6.95 3-cone time would’ve been by far the fastest among defensive tackles in Indianapolis. The fastest was 7.33. Smith’s 60-yard shuttle time is 11.90.”
So it’s a safe bet that he’ll post a sky-high Relative Athletic Score just like other players the Saints have drafted as of late. The team values big athletes who can move well, and he fits the bill. Smith improved as a pass rusher as the 2022 season wore on, and a good position coach like Ryan Nielsen could probably get more out of him in the NFL. Whether the Saints bring back all their defensive tackles or just some of them (or if they decide to sweep the slate clean altogether), Smith would add a lot of juice to a group that hasn’t quite asserted itself as well as in years past. He’s someone to watch as the Wolverines advance further into the College Football Playoff tournament.
Brugler is right to consider quarterback here too, though. Neither Andy Dalton nor Jameis Winston are long-term answers for New Orleans, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the team move on from both players in the spring. They’ll be active buyers in the market for a new passer. Brugler suggested Tennessee Volunteers star Hendon Hooker (who we’re fans of, despite his season-ending knee injury), and it’s likely he’ll be in play around the time the Saints are on the clock. But that’s something to worry about further next April.
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