The 2023 NFL Draft is less than one week away, and the Buffalo Bills have a handful of needs that they’ll look to address. Once again picking at the back of the first round, at No. 27 overall, Brandon Beane will need to not only assess those positional needs, but make a decision on whether to possibly reach for a player that will plug the biggest hole, or select the best available player at one of those positions.
The most glaring hole on the roster is at middle linebacker, as Tremaine Edmunds departed in free agency. Iowa’s Jack Campbell is a logical fit, but for a prospect that many predict to go in the 40-50 range, the No. 27 overall spot may be a bit rich for the Hawkeyes defender. Arkansas’ Drew Sanders and Clemson’s Trenton Simpson also fit the bill, but like Campbell, they may not be worthy of that first-round grade.
After linebacker, the team will likely look to add a skill position player, whether that be another wide receiver or even a flex tight end, along with a right tackle and some defensive line help.
But looking at Buffalo’s current roster in 2023 and beyond, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Brandon Beane use another high draft pick to address the defensive line.
Ed Oliver is playing on his fifth-year option, and it doesn’t seem like an extension is in play for the former No. 9 overall pick. DaQuan Jones was tremendous as the nose tackle last season, but the 32-year old is also entering the final year of his deal. Jordan Phillips returned on a one-year contract, and Tim Settle, who took a pay cut earlier in the offseason, will see his contract voided next season as well.
After whiffing on A.J. Epenesa and Boogie Basham, coupled with a lack of production from most of his free agent additions, Beane selecting a defensive lineman in the first round would certainly elicit groans from the BillsMafia loyal. However, while the defensive tackle position isn’t the most glaring hole this season, by next year, that hole will be a canyon.
Enter Michigan defender Mazi Smith.
Mazi Smith is an athletic freak that was highlighted in Bruce Feldman’s yearly draft column. At 6-foot-3, 323-pounds, Smith reportedly has a 33-inch vert, a ridiculous 6.95 three-cone, and a 9-foot-4 broad jump – all insane numbers for a player of his size. In two years as a starter for the Wolverines, Smith tallied 88 tackles, six tackles for loss and half a sack.
Smith primarily played as the nose for the Wolverines, consistently facing double teams, but was an absolute monster of a run defender. He’s powerful, violent, and uses his hands well. He’s strong at the point of attack and has the strength to shed opposing linemen and make big plays in the backfield while having the athleticism to chase runners down toward the sidelines.
Michigan DT Mazi Smith (#58) is so explosive in his upper-body. Here he is against projected day-two guard prospect, Steve Avila (left guard).— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 17, 2023
Press, hold his ground, read through the block to the running back, then shed and mirror the RB into the gap. Textbook. pic.twitter.com/MWQNsQ2cvK
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith ranked No.6 in run stops last season (22), while his 34 tackles against the run were eighth-most among interior defensive linemen.
Smith proves that he not only holds his own as the anchor of a defense as a two-gap defender but that he can be a disruptive playmaker on a consistent basis.
The concerns with Mazi show up when rushing the passer. A player with his athleticism and skill set only managing to finish his career with 0.5 sacks is concerning, but when you watch him, it’s obvious that he can beat his man and be a disruptor. Even as a zero technique, or a two-gapper, he can defeat blocks with his hands, ripping and pulling guards off his face and getting into the backfield in a hurry. Mazi needs to develop counter moves, but with a quality defensive line coach, the potential and flashes are there.
Beautiful club-by move from Mazi Smith pic.twitter.com/zcnStbbNt0— Matt Holder (@MHolder95) April 20, 2023
Once he learns how to play with more control after defeating his man, I truly think the sky is the limit. But right now, he struggles to finish off plays when rushing the passer.
Couple of thoughts of Mazi Smith (who I do like as a player:— Luke Grant (@LukeGrant7) April 15, 2023
1. He never keeps himself clean & wins pass rushing reps with hand usage. Rarely see a club/swim combo or swipe and rip. Always wants contact & to push/pull or hump move.
2. Missed a lot of tackles outside his frame pic.twitter.com/n09I04sl51
Mazi has all of the physical tools necessary to develop into a pass rusher, but he’s a work in progress in that area at this point in time. Overall, you’re looking at a prospect with day-one starter potential, that can be an impactful two-down defender while he develops skills in the pass rush department. He’s too explosive, powerful, and disruptive to not be a factor at the next level.
Pairing Smith with two vets in Jones and Phillips, along with a Hall of Fame pass rusher in Von Miller will undoubtedly help the 21-year-old grow into a quality three-down player.
While defensive tackle isn’t the biggest need on the Buffalo Bills roster, if players like Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Darnell Wright, Dalton Kincaid, Zay Flowers, etc. are all off the board by the time Buffalo is on the clock at No. 27, Mazi Smith would be a fantastic addition to a team that needs playmakers in the front seven.