2018 NFL Draft preview: Roquan Smith leads Georgia’s deep defensive class

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Former Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (right) tackled Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield in the Rose Bowl. Both players are expected to be selected in the Top 10 of the 2018 NFL Draft on Thursday night.

It’s been a half decade since Georgia produced more than three defensive picks in the same NFL draft class. Led by all-world linebacker Roquan Smith, the current group is perhaps not quite as deep as their 2013 predecessors — Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree led a group of seven total selections — but they will command plenty of attention later this week.

DawgNation has been on the phone with several NFL draft analysts this month. These experts provided plenty of interesting insight on the Bulldogs defenders who should be playing on Sundays in 2018.

Here’s a breakdown of a “D” class to remember:

Roquan Smith, linebacker

Analysts — and, presumably, teams — can’t stop gushing over Roquan Smith. His combination of elite talent and an outstanding work ethic easily makes him one of the 10 best players in the draft, no matter who you ask.

“He is your classic leader by example,” ESPN’s Todd McShay said. “He doesn’t put up with any nonsense, and he expects excellence from everyone around him. At Georgia, that’s what he got. And I think in the NFL, he will quickly become that guy for the Colts [No. 6 pick] or the Chicago Bears [No. 8] or whichever team ends up drafting him. He’s not gonna last very long on draft night.”

Sporting News’ Eric Galko said Smith produced three of the country’s top-10 linebacker games (on tape) in 2017. He compared Smith to seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, while NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah compared him to Hall of Fame selection Derrick Brooks.

The 6-foot-1, 236-pound Smith is not as big as your typical middle linebacker, but it just doesn’t seem to matter.

NFL Network’s Louis Riddick directly compared Smith to former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster (the No. 31 overall pick last year) and gave the edge to Smith. Keep in mind that Riddick has always been very high on Foster, and called him one of the best “two or three” players in the 2017 class.

Count McShay as a big fan, too.

“There are several teams that are interested in Roquan and think that he’s gonna be the face-of-the-defense type player, and I agree,” McShay said. “I think he’s special. I think Luke Kuechly. That type of impact right away and for many years. I compare him to [three-time Pro Bowl selection] Jonathan Vilma.”

Here’s a more in-depth summary of what Smith does well, per McShay:

“If you protect him a little bit and give him some room to work, I think he has exceptional range. Yes, he’s 236 pounds, which is kind of your average-sized weak-side linebacker, but he’s physical. The way he finishes is really impressive. He brings his hips through contact. He’s a face-up tackler, one of the best tacklers in this draft.

“And then you have third downs. In today’s NFL, I think he’s a perfect fit. Yes, he can play the run, sideline-to-sideline, really instinctive. A lot of guys will make a tackle at the line of scrimmage that he’s gonna make 2, 3 yards in the backfield … because of how fast his eyes are, how quickly he closes and how effective he is as a tackler.”

When McShay re-watched the Georgia-Auburn SEC Championship Game, one particular play stood out: Smith turned his hips and ran with an Auburn slot receiver and “attacked the ball like a wide receiver.”

It was a rare moment, McShay said.

The consensus seems to be that Smith will likely go between No. 6 (Indianapolis) and No. 10 (Oakland) on Thursday night, with the Raiders being an especially good fit.

ESPN legend Mel Kiper Jr. didn’t think Smith will be available to Jon Gruden and Co. Instead, he named the former Bulldogs star as a primary option for the Bears at No. 8.

“Great linebacker play has always defined the Chicago Bears,” Kiper said, “and Roquan Smith is one of the most distinctive players you’ll ever find.”

RELATED: Kirby Smart to join Roquan Smith at the NFL draft

Former Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter tracks down Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson in the 2018 SEC title game. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Lorenzo Carter, linebacker

Lorenzo Carter has been a workout warrior since the end of the season. He set an NFL ombine record with his 10-foot, 10-inch broad jump in February, and showed out at the Bulldogs’ pro day as well.

“He’s a little bit of a challenging evaluation,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said earlier this month. “I think right now, at this point in time, he’s a better athlete than just a pure football player. When you talk about somebody that’s 6-5, 250 pounds that runs a high 4.4, low 4.5, and watch the Notre Dame game, especially. It’s easy to see what he can become.”

The primary issue with Carter’s resume, Jeremiah said, is “consistency.” But he might be a Thursday pick if teams feel like taking a chance on his potential.

“It wouldn’t shock me if he snuck into the bottom of [Round] 1,” Jeremiah said, “just because we talked about the edge-rusher group not being all that great.”

SB Nation’s Dan Kadar said there is a “fair chance” Carter can sneak into the first round due to the premium at the edge-rusher spot, and teams such as Tennessee (No. 25) and New Orleans (No. 27) might be good fits at the back of the first round. But Carter is more likely a second-round option.

“If you had the draft right after the final game of the football season,” Kadar said, “I don’t think anyone would be talking about Lorenzo Carter as a first-round player. But if you add in the pro day, and certainly the combine, he looks like a freaky athlete. A lot of times those players jump up when maybe they shouldn’t.

“I like Lorenzo Carter, but I think the hype on him is a little out of control, to be quite honest. Which sounds terrible of me to say, but the production just wasn’t there. That’s baffling to me when you look at how good of an athlete his was.”

ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. agreed: “Great talent, but a little bit of an underachiever.”

Sporting News’ Eric Galko projected him as a Day 2 guy who has a “great chance to be a top-50 player,” but said the first round is a stretch. Here’s his scouting report:

“He fits that Leonard Floyd model. I think a lot of NFL scouts want him to be Leonard Floyd, and I think he has some of the same concerns. He’s longer. Thinner. Is he gonna bulk up and be a true 4-3 defensive end. Is he gonna play outside and be too thin, too long to be a 3-4 outside linebacker?

“But he’s explosive. Plays away from his frame really well. Attacks with his hands. Finishes in the backfield so well. As a pass rusher, he can get into the backfield and finish by taking down a quarterback or a running back. And that’s where he fits … As offenses in the NFL gets quicker, there’s less room for error for a pass rusher, and Lorenzo Carter does that so well: Clicks, closes, bends, gets to the quarterback. Finishes plays in the backfield.”

RELATED: Lorenzo Carter names his (surprise) favorite Georgia memory

Trenton Thompson, defensive tackle

For SB Nation’s Dan Kadar, the Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma was revealing: It showed several Georgia defenders at the height of their powers, but also underlined how much those same defenders left on the table at various points of the season.

“They killed Baker Mayfield, which no one else was able to do,” Kadar said. “They figured him out. But you just look at how athletic they are and what you imagine they should be, and a couple of guys just didn’t get there. I think [Trenton] Thompson is one of them.”

Like many others, Kadar was “a little surprised” when Thompson entered the draft. Shoulder injuries are always a “big red flag” for lineman (Thompson dealt with shouler, ankle and knee issues in Athens) and those health questions — combined with some off-field issues in 2017 — might make Thompson a “fifth, sixth-round type of player.”

“He was a little inconsistent, and he never really put it all together for Georgia,” Kadar said. “He looks the part as a 3-4 defensive end. I think he’s a really good athlete for the position. He’s strong, too. But just always just inconsistent.”

Senior Bowl coordinator Phil Savage said Thompson should hear his name called this weekend.

“He’s a bigger body,” Savage said. “He’s a fit as a 3-4 defensive end. I don’t know if his pass-rush potential is there to be a high pick, but I do think he’s gonna be a third-day choice for somebody and see if he can grow from there.

Sporting News’ Eric Galko compared Thompson to current Miami Dolphins lineman Jordan Phillips, saying he’s probably a “Day 3 guy” who is “not the quickest guy laterally.”

“He’s best when he’s able to be a one-gap penetrator,” Galko said. “I think that’s where his best role in the NFL is gonna be. He can do some versatile things because he has that length. But I think being a one-gap guy, as long as he stays healthy and can be in a rotation in the NFL, that’s where he’s best at.”

Former Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy made several notable plays for the Bulldogs in 2017. (Photo: Steffenie Burns/UGA Athletics)

Davin Bellamy, linebacker

When Georgia needed a big play on defense, Davin Bellamy often provided one. Fans will remember him for his game-clinching sack at Notre Dame and a crucial strip-sack against Auburn in the SEC title game. He also recorded a sack of Tua Tagovailoa in overtime of the national championship game … the one that subsequently led to Tagovailoa’s 41-yard game-winning touchdown pass.

Analysts praised him for those big moments, but said he lacked the consistency needed to be a Day 2 pick.

“The highlight-reel stuff was there, but he got overpowered at times at the point of attack,” SB Nation’s Dan Kadar said. “I think he needs to get stronger in the NFL to hold on to a roster spot. But you’ve gotta love the intangible stuff with him; the big plays, the leadership stuff, how vocal he is. He does the small things that help a guy stick on a roster. But he just has to get stronger, hone his pass-rushing technique a little more, and be more consistent.”

Kadar wondered what Bellamy would’ve looked like in a different system; would a 4-3 be better suited to his needs? Senior Bowl organizer Phil Savage said Bellamy fits best where he was in college: as an outside linebacker in the 3-4.

“I think there’s some intriguing talent there,” Savage said. “I don’t know that it always showed through with his pass-rush ability, but he flashed it at different times … I’m thinking with Bellamy, you’re looking at the fourth to sixth round to a team that runs a true 3-4 like they do at Georgia.”

Sporting News’ Eric Galko gave Bellamy a fourth-round grade and expected him to go between the fourth and sixth rounds.

“I think teams are trying to figure out if he’s gonna have the perimeter ability to work as a 4-3 outside linebacker,” Galko said. “That’s the concern. Because if he’s limited to a 3-4 inside guy, he’s a bit taller and — not lean — but being a taller, easier target for interior offensive linemen is going to be a concern. The taller you are — look at Alec Ogletree a couple years ago — you’ve got to play outside.

RELATED: Davin Bellamy remaining ‘humble’ during draft preparation

Dominick Sanders, safety

The final play of Dominick Sanders’ career was a heartbreaker, but Phil Savage thinks Sanders was something of a scapegoat after the overtime loss to Alabama.

“Really, it was a 50-50 proposition,” Savage said. “The corner got no re-route on the receiver for Alabama. And, of course, Dominick got sort of pinpointed for that. I don’t know that that was necessarily fair.”

He called Sanders a “late-round choice” — a little “short in height, weight and speed” — who would be an excellent undrafted free agent option for teams if he slipped through the cracks.

SB Nation’s Dan Kadar thought Sanders, who made a school-record 54 career starts, might land in the latter category.

“If I were running an NFL team, I would always at least take an undrafted flier on an SEC player who started so many games,” Kadar said. “There’s a reason he played so many games on a high-level team.”

RELATED: Dominick Sanders’ worst heartbreak did not come on 2nd-and-26

John Atkins, defensive tackle

The scouting report on John Atkins sounds simple enough.

“He’s a big man in the middle of the defense,” Phil Savage said. “Teams, I think, have sort of moved away from the nose tackle-type of one-dimensional player. With that being said, I think he’s a potential third-day choice for a team as a run-down defender.”

Sporting News’ Eric Galko echoed that those thoughts, and added that Atkins has developed a reputation as a hard worker who is “always ready to go” physically. That’s no small feat at 305 pounds.

“I think he’s a big, thick interior defensive lineman who doesn’t do anything too special or too sexy, but has enough motor, has the work ethic to finish on the inside and be a gap-eater,” Galko said. “A big reason we have a draftable grade on him, too: Planet Theory. Not that many guys work hard, try hard at that size and can be in football shape consistently.”

(NOTE: Cornerback Aaron Davis and linebacker Reggie Carter are both considered NFL prospects, too, but are not expected to be drafted.)

Where do you think Georgia’s defenders will land in the NFL draft? Let us know in the comments section below.

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