Tuesday, May 28, 2024 May 28, 2024
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Mazi Smith Is a Large, Warranted Break From Cowboys Draft Tradition

The Cowboys made Smith their only defensive tackle drafted in the first round since 1991. Here's why.
Mazi Smith is built to dominant the run game, but there's potential in the pass rush, too. Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys’ first-round pick is a very large human being. Mazi Smith stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 323 pounds, the sort of bulk Dallas has rarely invested in on the defensive line over the last several decades. You have to go back to 1991 and Russell Maryland to find the last time Dallas drafted a defensive tackle in the first round. Now, with the arrival of Smith from Michigan, the franchise has ended its longstanding aversion to ponying up for defensive tackles.

Your mileage can, and probably will, vary on this pick. In a vacuum, run-stuffing defensive tackles are not as valuable as edge rushers or cornerbacks, and Dallas had a plumb option at each spot, with Georgia’s Nolan Smith and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. Neither were supposed to be on the board at Dallas’ 26th overall selection, and draftniks cooed when Nolan Smith went off the board four picks later to the hated Eagles. These would have been the value plays. Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer, meanwhile, would have been the flashier need pick (just ask our Jake Kemp). And as effective as Mazi Smith is at what he does, he is not the same caliber of prospect coming out of college as, say, Philadelphia’s Jordan Davis or Tampa Bay’s Vita Vea, both of whom are even bigger and move comparably well.

So why, exactly, did Dallas choose to break from tradition for this player?

Need, for one. Edge rusher is the strongest position on Dallas’ roster, while Stephon Gilmore should be an excellent complement to Trevon Diggs for at least this year. Talented as Nolan Smith and Porter Jr. are, neither would improve Dallas’ starting lineup out of the gate. Mayer would, but this is a potentially historic tight-end class, and only Utah’s Dalton Kinkaid is off the board going into Day 2. There’s still plenty of opportunity for Dallas to add a player alongside incumbents Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot. (Watch out for Iowa’s Sam LaPorta, in particular.)

And, more pertinently, perhaps the team picked Smith because Micah Parsons told them to:

Parsons likely lobbied for Smith for the same reasons Dallas’ actual decision-makers claim to have had him “13 or 14” on their draft board. They, like the rest of us, are aware of the team’s leaky run defense, which ranked 22nd in the NFL with 129.3 rushing yards allowed per game. It was the anchor that dragged down a top-10 pass defense and led to Dallas acquiring 340-pound Johnathan Hankins at the trade deadline, a band-aid move to supplement the low-cost drafting of 330-pound Quinton Bohanna in the sixth round of the 2021 draft. Neither succeeded, because big bodies are rarely also skilled, explosive bodies.

Smith’s is:

That explosion translates to power, but also the quickness to potentially get to the quarterback in a system like defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s, as opposed to the read-and-react scheme Michigan deployed. I’d recommend this, from PFF’s John Owning, if you want to wade deep into the scouting weeds of what Smith could become, but the TL;DR is Smith’s floor is a space-eating tackle who will clog up running lanes and engulf blockers, which in turn frees up Parsons and the rest of Dallas’ merry band of pass rushers to face easier assignments on the perimeter. His ceiling is all of that and someone who bullies his way into the defensive backfield, too.

That’s enticing enough for the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs to reportedly inquire about going up to get Smith for themselves. And it’s potentially transformative for a defense that has every other piece it needs to contend.

Presuming it works, of course. But, as FOX Sports’ David Helman reminded everyone earlier this week, since VP of player personnel Will McClay began running the Cowboys’ drafts, six of their eight first-round picks have become All-Pros. One of the two who hasn’t is Tyler Smith, who was a 21-year-old rookie last season.

Odds are, then, that this pick will not only hit, but hit big. And if it hits as big as Smith is himself, then you can expect the Cowboys’ avoidance of first-round defensive tackles to resume for the best reason possible: they shouldn’t need one for a while.


Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…