Ian Cummings’ Weekly NFL Draft Scouting Notebook: Mazi Smith, R.J. Moten names to watch in 2023
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Ian Cummings’ Weekly NFL Draft Scouting Notebook: Mazi Smith, R.J. Moten names to watch in 2023

What's in this article?Click to showScouting is pinpointing what prospects can be 5 NFL Draft prospects you need to know Mark Robinson, LB, Ole Miss R.J. Moten, S, Michigan (eligible for 2023 NFL Draft) Mazi Smith, DT, Michigan (eligible for 2023 NFL Draft) Moro Ojomo, DT, Texas (eligible for 2023 NFL Draft) Quentin Johnston, WR, TCU 5 prospects I’m watching next Thomas Booker, DT, Stanford Noah Harvey, LB, Michigan State Nolan Turner, S, Clemson Devin Rockette, CB, South Alabama Devin Cochran, OT, Georgia Tech

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Scouting is pinpointing what prospects can be

One mantra that always underpins my analysis is this — you’re scouting what a player can be, not necessarily what they are now. Rookie contracts span four years. Productive NFL starters can play up to a decade (or even longer). Immediate utility is important, but finding the player who has yet to blossom can be just as valuable.

Of course, there’s danger in focusing on the ceiling. The ceiling is a place that not every prospect reaches. In fact, if you were to conduct a statistical analysis, I’d say well over half of the prospects that come out never actually reach their ceiling. A lot goes into reaching one’s ceiling, including situation, coaching, supporting talent, and off-field motivations that are impossible to quantify.

That’s the tough part. Scouting from the outside, you don’t always have the resources to get answers on the off-field portion. And if you’re not affiliated with a team, you don’t have control over the situation. Thus, you simply have to be open to the countless potential outcomes that exist. And you have to keep a close eye on the film for keys to a prospect’s growth potential.

The bottom line is this — know what you don’t know. And always be fluid with your analysis. Don’t be afraid to have conviction with your opinions if you’ve truly put in the work. But don’t entrench yourself, and be open to changing your opinion as your perspective broadens.

5 NFL Draft prospects you need to know

Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse into my thought process, let’s dive into some abstract film observations. Obviously, I prioritize the players I’m assigned scouting reports for. But along the way, other players always catch your eye. Never miss an opportunity to write a note and put it in the vault.

Here are five players who caught my eye this past week. Not all of these prospects are in the 2022 NFL Draft pool, but all are worth knowing for the future. We’ll start with one feature prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft — Ole Miss linebacker Mark Robinson.

I recently wrapped up my scouting report on Ole Miss LB Chance Campbell. He’s a fun player with high upside. But he’s not the only Ole Miss LB in this cycle. His teammate Robinson has also flashed several times.

I hadn’t heard of Robinson before watching. So when I saw No. 35 making plays, I had to look him up. Robinson’s football journey is incredible. He was a running back in high school. He logged 1,000 yards as a senior but still didn’t get much interest.

Robinson signed with Presbyterian on scholarship but had to transfer when they eliminated scholarships after the 2017 season. That led to two uneventful years at Southeast Missouri. He was led to Ole Miss by his HS teammate Otis Reese, but he was a walk-on. Robinson took a leap of faith and sat out a year as a transfer. Then he came back, turned heads in spring camp, earned a scholarship in the summer of 2021, and became a starting linebacker at an SEC school.

91 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks later, Robinson is a 2022 NFL Draft prospect. There’s virtually no buzz around his name. But perhaps that needs to change.

Campbell is explosive, so he provides a good barometer to judge other players and their explosiveness. Watching Robinson next to Campbell, it’s clear that he has a similar level of short-area burst.

Ian Cummings’ Weekly NFL Draft Scouting Notebook: Mazi Smith, R.J. Moten names to watch in 2023

Robinson is an explosive, energetic mover with good closing speed and lateral athleticism. He’s a bit shorter than your average linebacker, but he’s listed at 5’11”, 235 pounds. He’s extremely dense and compact, hits like a ton of bricks, and engages blocks with force.

That physicality is reminiscent of his past as an RB, but Robinson isn’t just a heavy hitter. As a former RB, he knows what keys to look for and deciphers run plays quickly. He’s noticeably more natural than Campbell sifting through congestion, and he can run with blocks to swallow up ball carriers.

Robinson does overshoot tackling angles at times in the box, and he’s not yet a playmaker in coverage. But Robinson’s physical skill set, combined with his toughness and physicality, makes him an intriguing sleeper. Keep an eye on this guy at Ole Miss’ Pro Day. He could surprise.

We’re getting on to 2023 NFL Draft prospects now, and the Michigan defense is full of them. We could even go on to 2024 if we want to talk about Rod Moore, but we’ll hold off on that for now. For now, let’s focus on two specific 2023 prospects on the Wolverines’ squad, starting with safety R.J. Moten.

Watching Vincent Gray, I got a close look at the Michigan secondary. It was enough that I can confidently say that Moten has the tools to be a Daxton Hill-esque riser in 2023 — except Moten is almost 30 pounds heavier.

Listed at 6’0″, 221 pounds, Moten flies across the field. It’s not surprising that he was a star center fielder in high school, and he sports a reported vertical jump over 40″. Moten explodes out of his stance and has imposing range. He doesn’t have Hill’s top-end speed, but he can cover ground either way. With his center field experience, he flashes great playmaking instincts down the field. And with his dense frame, he can levy big hits downhill.

Moten had a pick and 3 deflections in a crowded Wolverines secondary last year. I’m willing to bet it’s just the start.

Christopher Hinton is the only Michigan interior defensive lineman who declared for the 2022 NFL Draft. But if you’re asking me, he wasn’t the best prospect in that interior group this past season. I was more often drawn to No. 58 — Mazi Smith, a 6’3″, 326-pound behemoth on the defensive front.

Smith is a monster when he’s on his game. He’s incredibly strong and powerful, and he flashes good burst as a pass rusher as well. His bread and butter, however, is run defense. There’s a rep against Nebraska that’s particularly striking.

Lined up at 3-technique, on the front side of an inside-zone run, Smith is at the targeted gap. He uses his lateral athleticism to shade in front of the guard and closes off the A gap, forcing the runner to improvise. As the RB now diverts to the B gap, however, Smith uses a startling burst of brute force to shove the guard into the B gap with one arm. He essentially uses the lineman to shut the RB’s path, then swallows up the back for no gain.

It was a moment not dissimilar to Jordan Davis‘ famous two-gap terror against Kentucky, and it characterizes Smith’s upside. He’s a versatile nose tackle whose physical traits make him a key name to watch in the 2023 NFL Draft class.

In truth, there are several prospects to watch on the Texas defensive line. Alfred Collins is a mauling defensive tackle, while Ovie Oghoufo is a Notre Dame transfer with intriguing traits on the edge. This week, I’m going to resist the urge to talk about them all and focus on one player — defensive tackle Moro Ojomo.

I was a fan of current Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Ta’Quon Graham coming out. I’m always partial to defensive linemen who are a little shorter but have good proportional length. That way, you have natural leverage, and you can generate more power on extensions. Graham had that combination, and Ojomo might be the next who fits that mold.

Ojomo is listed at 6’3″, 281 pounds, but he is incredibly dense and compact and sports a good first step. He likely doesn’t have elite length, but it appears to be good for his size, and he uses it well. He can surge his hands into contact with violent force, and he uses his explosiveness to generate ample power at the point of attack. If he can keep refining his hand usage, he has potential as a 3-technique at the NFL level.

We all love defense, but let’s close this section out with an offensive player. Wide receiver is one of my personal favorite positions to scout. There are so many different types and molds to identify. But it’s tough to replace the impact of an alpha. And an alpha might be what TCU’s Quentin Johnston is.

Listed at 6’4″, 193 pounds, Johnston immediately draws attention with his frame. He’s long and wiry, but there’s more to his game than size. He flashes solid hip sink and throttle control as a route runner. And at the catch point, he holds up even better than you’d think.

One play against Oklahoma is emblematic of Johnston’s alpha mentality. Johnston uses his acceleration to stack his man on a go route. The QB launches a pass to the end zone, but it’s short. Johnston has to turn and reach over the defender to grab the pass. There’s a struggle for the ball, and the DB gets his hands on it. But Johnston’s hands are stronger, and he prevails — then gives the DB a stiff-arm celebration for good measure.

Johnston is on my list early for the 2023 cycle. With 612 yards and 6 scores on just 33 catches in 2021, it’s clear he’s a dynamic deep threat. I’m looking forward to seeing if he can put things together and become one of the best WRs in the 2023 class.

5 prospects I’m watching next

If you know, you know. The grind literally never ends. So, here’s a quick preview of the players on my list for next week’s article. My watch list won’t be reserved for these five, however. The scouting process is always a little spontaneous, so don’t be surprised if I go off-script. But right now, these are the guys I’ve got on deck.

This is the last scouting report left in my current batch before another bundle comes in. I’m excited about this one. I’ve always been intrigued by Thomas Booker, and the offseason hasn’t changed that. He flashed at the Shrine Bowl and did well at the Combine, testing with a 4.94 40-yard dash, a 7.33 three-cone, and a 110″ broad jump. He’s in the mold of DT described above — natural leverage and good proportional length. Factor in his athletic numbers and there’s a lot to like on the surface.

Living near East Lansing, I see a lot of Michigan State football in passing. I’ve seen Noah Harvey flash during those games, but his pro day testing took me by surprise. At 6’3″, 230 pounds, Harvey ran a 4.57 40-yard dash and also had a 34.5″ vertical and a 117″ broad jump. Beyond even that, he racked up an impressive 25 bench reps. I’ll be eager to do a deep dive on Harvey’s tape. Based on his numbers, he could be a diamond in the rough.

Nolan Turner is another player that’s always flashed through viewings but never drew an in-depth look. That might change after his pro day testing. Turner is an experienced veteran on defense with good ball production. And now, after his pro day, he has a 4.46 40-yard dash to his name, along with a 37.5″ vertical, 122″ broad, 7.00 three-cone, and 17 bench reps. Athleticism is a key building block in the NFL. Turner has that…and more.

PFN is a hive of Jalen Tolbert hype, but I’m just as interested in the guy covering Tolbert during practices. South Alabama cornerback Devin Rockette put up eye-popping numbers at his pro day — among them a 4.53 40-yard dash, a 38.5″ vertical, a 130″ broad, and 15 bench reps. Rockette is only 5’9 1/2″ and 180 pounds, but he has good proportional length with 31″ arms. And with 5 picks and 11 deflections over the past three seasons, it’s clear he can make plays on the ball.

This one is a re-watch for me. I watched Devin Cochran earlier in the cycle and came away impressed. In my opinion, he’s an underrated tackle in the 2022 NFL Draft who’s well worth an NFL Draft pick. His pro day testing numbers support this notion. Cochran is 6’7″, 306 pounds with massive 35 3/8″ arms and a straight uncommon 86 1/4″ wingspan. Beyond that, he has a 5.12 40-yard dash, a 30″ vertical, and a 112″ broad jump.

Cochran is a tremendous physical specimen, but last time I watched him, his hands also stood out as a strength. I’m eager to finalize his report, as he may deserve more buzz than he’s currently getting.

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