The origin story of the star-studded 2021 Georgia defense—which will likely watch roughly half of its starting lineup get selected in the first round of this week’s NFL draft—begins in 2018. That season, the Bulldogs were mediocre against the run, at least by their lofty standards; they allowed 134 rushing yards per game, which ranked 31st in the nation, and gave up 157 yards (at 5.4 yards a pop) in a 35-28 SEC title game loss to Alabama—a loss that forced head coach Kirby Smart to do some schematic soul-searching.
Smart decided his unit needed some tweaks if it was going to play at a championship level. “Eight of the last 10 national champions, at that point, had been in the top 15 in rushing defense,” Smart said during the 2021 Nike Coach of the Year Virtual Summit. “We knew we had to find a way to move ourselves up in rushing defense.”
The passing boom we’ve seen in football in recent years isn’t limited to the pro level. College passing games have become more efficient and better at producing big gains, which has made it impossible for defenses to stack the box to contain the run as they once did. Smart, then, had to find new ways to overcome that numbers disadvantage, and he spent the next two seasons recruiting players with different body types and adjusting his scheme until this unit could do just that. Here’s a clip of Smart explaining the end result:
This group bullied just about every offense it went up against last season. Georgia allowed 10.2 points per game and just 2.6 yards per carry, and it produced efficiency numbers matched only by the best defenses in the history of the college game.
Given those results, it probably isn’t surprising that Georgia is expected to challenge Alabama’s record for the most prospects selected in the first round of an NFL draft (six). Edge rusher Travon Walker is the betting favorite to go first to Jacksonville. Run obliterator Jordan Davis should go somewhere in the teens. The same goes for fellow defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt. Linebackers Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker could slip into the first round, as could safety Lewis Cine.
What is somewhat surprising, though, is the difficulty scouts have had evaluating the players in this defense. When Smart made his tweaks after 2018, he changed his defensive scheme to one that highlighted the system rather than its individual pieces. It’s unorthodox in some ways—football fans are used to seeing more aggressive front sevens that attack the line of scrimmage—but it’s also the best way to deal with the challenges that modern offenses present.
NFL teams would be wise to recognize that this is where their league is headed, too. And when evaluators raise concerns about what’s missing from the tape of these Georgia prospects, they’re not only overblowing the situation, they’re also showing a misunderstanding of how football is evolving. Let’s use Smart’s own explanations of his defense from the Nike summit to add some context to the film produced by Davis, Travon Walker, Dean, and Cine to try to forecast what to expect from the players who made this scheme what it is.
Jordan Davis: A one-dimensional run stuffer, or a foundational piece for a modern defense?
Football is generally dominated by the biggest and fastest players, so drafting Davis with a top pick seems like a no-brainer. At the combine in February, the 6-foot-6, 341-pound defensive tackle ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash and leapt over 10 feet in the broad jump. He’s basically like two Derrick Henrys in a trench coat, and equally as athletic.
Davis may look like the blocking assignment from hell, but analysts have questioned his ability to beat pass blockers. He didn’t do much of that at Georgia, tallying just seven sacks over four years, and he didn’t penetrate the backfield all that often. But that was by design.
Let’s do some simple math. We know from the clip above that Smart wants his defense to match numbers in the box, so if the offense has six blockers in the box, there will also be six run defenders. The numbers may be even, but count the number of gaps the defense must account for:
There are seven gaps with only six defenders to plug them. Which means some players will be responsible for not only their primary gap, but also a secondary one. Here’s Smart explaining the concept:
Smart didn’t ask Davis to attack gaps last year; he asked him to control them. And there wasn’t a player in the country better at doing that. Davis’s tape is full of reps in which he’s just throwing dudes around, even against Alabama’s stacked offensive line.
Those otherworldly testing numbers also showed up on tape. Davis could defeat blockers with strength or quickness:
And he even ranged outside the hashes to bring down ballcarriers on the perimeter:
340 pound human backdooring the reach and playing from hash to hash. there are exactly 0 people who can do this in the nfl right now, draft him top 3 pic.twitter.com/MfazHifW9l— legally blind scout (@ripIizmatch) April 26, 2022
Davis was doing the job of two (and sometimes three) players, allowing Georgia to send more of his teammates into pass coverage, exactly how Smart drew it up.
In 2020, Pro Football Focus’s Eric Eager found statistical evidence that backed up the underlying theory of the scheme Smart had designed. “[T]he correlation between the average number of box players used on run plays and the PFF grade per snap of the interior players for that team is negative,” Eager wrote. “Thus … interior defensive players who can stop the run improve overall defensive performance both directly and indirectly through allowing their team to play fewer men in the box, thereby improving pass defense via the use of a numbers game.”
Kirby had the nerds beat by two years there.
At the next level, Davis’s presence in the run game will automatically boost the pass defense indirectly. And imagine if some team is able to give him more opportunities to get after the quarterback and expand his array of pass rush moves. Any teams who pass on him in the top 10 will surely regret it.
Travon Walker: A workout warrior, or the ultimate edge setter?
It’s looking more and more likely that Walker will be the first player off the board Thursday night, so defending him may seem unnecessary. But if he is the Jaguars’ guy, he will go down as one of the most scrutinized first picks in draft history.
Like Davis, Walker did not crack double digits in the sack department at Georgia. And I don’t just mean last season. He racked up only 9.5 sacks over the course of his entire three-season career. It’s understandably difficult to get too excited about a pass rusher who can’t, you know, rush the passer.
But, again, Smart didn’t ask his defensive linemen—even those on the edge—to pin their ears back and rush the passer. Instead, they focused on jamming up run gaps and funneling ballcarriers to linebackers and defensive backs. The edge defenders played in one of two modes: “high gear,” or swarming to the ball if they were on the side of the run; and “low gear” if they weren’t, filling cutback lanes and tracking mobile quarterbacks.
Even when the defensive line was in pass rush mode, Georgia ran a lot of line stunts that sent rushers on looping paths to the quarterback. And Walker was often used as a bludgeon, clearing out lanes for his teammates by just running through blockers:
When Walker went after the quarterback, he really used only one move: the “long arm,” which is basically the pass rush equivalent of a stiff-arm and requires very little technical skill. But Walker’s 35 1/2-inch arms make that an awfully powerful tool. Getting some big-league coaching and being put in more straightforward pass rush situations should help him level up that part of his game over time.
In the meantime, Walker will provide elite run defense. When he was asked to play that “high gear” role, he set the edge violently:
omg they killed the pulling center pic.twitter.com/Q3y7vlJELC— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) January 1, 2022
When he was in the “low gear” role, he was able to cover a lot of ground and track down ballcarriers from behind:
Walker can be whatever a coach asks him to be. And that’s how a defensive end with fewer than 10 sacks to his name ends up as a top overall draft pick.
Nakobe Dean: An undersized tweener, or an all-knowing pass rush weapon?
Dean wasn’t the best player on Georgia’s defense last year, but he may have been the most important. The 21-year-old linebacker was the on-field brain of the operation, getting his teammates lined up properly, making sure the Bulldogs had done all of the proper presnap checks, and pointing out possible tells from the offense.
Man Nakobe Dean is smart. Watch him call out the reduced split and orbit motion to his teammates before getting the sack. pic.twitter.com/GxPFqOmBbd— Bud Elliott (@BudElliott3) January 1, 2022
Having someone like that in the middle of the defense is incredibly important in today’s game, as offenses shift and move at a breakneck pace. Communication devices aren’t allowed at the college level, so teams have to converse using hand signals or those poster boards that have pictures of random things meant to represent a certain call. And Dean is like a human index of those boards.
Football IQ is Dean’s main selling point, but he’s also an exceptional athlete. He didn’t test at the combine, so there aren’t numbers to back that up. But you can just turn on the tape if you need evidence of his athleticism. The dude can cover a lot of ground.
Nakobe Dean would add another linebacker with sideline-to-sideline speed to the Ravens’ defense pic.twitter.com/ovzKYQ3UTI— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) April 26, 2022
Still, there’s a reason he might slip out of the first round: Dean is small. His height (5-foot-11) lands him in the 5th percentile among linebacker prospects going back to the turn of the century, according to MockDraftable. He’s also a little light for the position at just 229 pounds.
That’s cause for concern for whoever drafts Dean, as they’ll be asking him to take on blocks against 300-pound linemen (something that wasn’t a problem for Smart, who had Davis and Wyatt to occupy the offensive line and keep the linebackers clean). But had Georgia allowed its linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage, we’d probably have more examples of Dean blowing up running plays.
I feel confident saying that because of the work Dean did as a blitzer. As effective as he was dropping into coverage, he was at his most dangerous when attacking the quarterback. Dean has perfected the art of running through a motherfucker’s face. But you don’t win 22.3 percent of your pass rush reps—which ranked sixth nationally, according to Pro Football Focus—just by being a human battering ram. Dean also paces his blitzes perfectly, consistently takes the most efficient routes to the QB, and knows how to contort his body to slither past blockers.
Since Pro Football Focus started grading college games in 2014, Dean is the only off-ball linebacker to earn a 90-plus grade in both pass rushing and coverage. He might be too small to hang with NFL tight ends in man-to-man coverage, but that’s really the only limitation he’ll have in obvious passing situations.
Now that defenses are getting more creative in how they pressure the passer, requiring defensive backs and linebackers to get more involved, Dean’s value in passing situations should be obvious. But based on predraft projections, that doesn’t appear to be the case just yet.
Lewis Cine: A downhill thumper, or an indispensable last line of defense?
As we’ve already established, Smart reconfigured his run defense in a way that allowed Georgia to keep its safeties in coverage. And with two guys deep on most snaps, both players’ jobs should theoretically be easier, right?
Well, not exactly. With the way Georgia’s defense is set up, the front seven is responsible for clogging interior run gaps and funneling ballcarriers out to the perimeter. The idea is to stretch out run plays and provide secondary run defenders time to properly diagnose the play and decide whether to drop into coverage or come downhill. The whole system falls apart if those secondary defenders can’t tackle. Thanks to Cine, the Bulldogs coaching staff never had to worry about that.
Cine led Georgia with 74 tackles last season and missed only 6.9 percent of his tackle attempts throughout his career, according to PFF. And even though he lined up deep on most snaps, that didn’t stop him from making plays near the line of scrimmage. His average tackle depth was just 3.6 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to Sports Info Solutions, which speaks to his ability to quickly discern the difference between run and pass plays and aggressively attack the line of scrimmage when needed.
During the 2010s, when the NFL’s passing boom really picked up, tackling became an undervalued trait for safeties. Teams preferred center-field types with unlimited range, or aces in coverage who could move into the slot and cover receivers or tight ends one-on-one. Cine has enough range to hold up as a single-high safety, but it’s certainly not a strength. And he has some trouble sticking to receivers when asked to play man. Because of that, he’ll probably have to wait until Day 2 of the draft to hear his name called.
But as more defenses adopt the approach Georgia has taken—we already saw NFL teams start that transition during the 2021 season, largely thanks to Vic Fangio’s coaching tree—teams are going to need at least one safety like Cine on the roster. There aren’t many players who can man that role as capably as the 22-year-old did.
The same can be said of all of the prospects we’ve covered here. The roles they played in Smart’s scheme may not directly translate to the style of defense we’ve seen at the NFL level in the recent past, but that’s changing in a hurry. And not only do the Georgia players have experience in these newer roles, they also have the physical traits that could make them stars at the next level.