No. 3: Nolan Smith (Georgia)
Nolan Smith was already firmly on my first-round radar before the NFL Combine, and what I saw at the event only solidified my belief in him as a day-one prospect. To say Smith is undersized would be an understatement, but his tape plays bigger for one key reason: run defense.
Although Smith is objectively smaller than I’d like, he is a fierce defender in run support. The Bulldog superstar told us at the Combine how much he loves meeting the running back with a full head of steam. Smith uses his one-of-one athletic profile to cover sideline to sideline, regularly chasing down ball carriers on the complete opposite side of the field.
As a pass rusher, Smith uses this athleticism to get off the snap in the blink of an eye. The burst allows Smith to blow by slower-footed offensive tackles, and when he converts this speed into power, he can knock linemen off their spots. Smith even showed some coverage ability chops, but he has a ways to go before being an impact player in this area.
Aside from size, durability concerns cloud Smith’s NFL projection. He dealt with multiple injuries at Georgia, and given his lack of size and the position he plays, these injury concerns could follow him to the league. Because of this, Smith ranks as a late day-one prospect on my board but has the upside of a top 10 player in the class.
NFL Draft Grade: Late Day 1
No. 4: Derick Hall (Auburn)
Derick Hall is another prospect that set the NFL Combine ablaze during on-field workouts. The former Auburn Tiger posted the fourth-best RAS of all qualified defensive ends in the 2023 NFL Draft. Other than size, Hall was borderline elite in every other aspect.
While these abilities do show up on tape, consistency is where I have issues. Hall gave up on plays and was outmatched in terms of strength several times by bigger-bodied offensive tackles. Rather than mixing in secondary moves, Hall accepts defeat.
That being said, this is not a damning quality. Hall boasts one of the most refined skill sets of any pass rusher in the class. When he is locked in, few can impact the game the way Hall can. He is a threat to sack the quarterback on any play, especially if he introduces more secondary pass-rushing moves.
Additionally, Hall is an elite run defender from day one. His play strength at the point of attack is something to continue working on, but superb hand usage allows him to fight through and shed the blocks regardless.
It all comes down to getting Hall to buy in. With how rocky things were at Auburn during his tenure, it’s hard to hold a lack of engagement against him. It still matters, though, and that is what ultimately keeps him outside of the first round on my board — but only narrowly.
NFL Draft Grade: Early Day 2
No. 5: BJ Ojulari (LSU)
BJ’s older brother, Azeez, was the No. 1 pass rusher on my Big Board back in 2021. His little bro might be even better as an all-around prospect, but given the sheer volume of top-end talent in this class, he winds up at No. 5 overall on this list.
Ojulari is extremely difficult to block one-on-one. He is explosive off the snap, owns a myriad of pass-rushing moves, and plays with a fire lit under him on every rep. BJ wins with speed and exceptional hand usage, showing a rip-through technique and a natural bend around the edge.
Ojulari is not without his shortcomings. He has not yet figured out how to convert his speed into power consistently. This is the next level of his game that needs to be unlocked. Furthermore, Ojulari lacks the size (and thus the strength) to be an impact defender in the run game.
Ojulari needs to be protected in a sense early in his career while he smooths out the rough edges of his game. He has elite potential as a sack artist in the league, but to become a true franchise player off the edge, he must get stronger and get his nose dirtier in run support.
NFL Draft Grade: Mid-Day 2