Cowboys shore up run defense with Michigan’s Mazi Smith and we like it … I think

Dec 31, 2022; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive lineman Mazi Smith (58) celebrates a play against the TCU Horned Frogs in the 2022 Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys shore up run defense with Michigan’s Mazi Smith and we like it … I think

I was live on the air covering the draft when the Cowboys selected Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith with the 26th overall pick. On-stream with me were two Cowboys fans, both older than me. The broadcast was high-energy and well-oiled until Dallas made their selection and sucked the air out of the room.

We had heard prior to the draft from multiple sources that head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn had a difference of opinion for what they wanted to do with their first round pick. McCarthy wanted a tight end to replace Dalton Schultz, and Quinn wanted a cornerback to sure up the secondary—both reasonable options. I liked McCarthy’s a bit more, but whatever.

When the 26th pick came about, two players stood out for both fit and value. They were Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer and Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr., both of who the Cowboys were rumored to love and are surprisingly still available as we enter the second round. So which direction did they go in? Neither. Mazi Smith was the selection.

Here’s the thing with Mazi. The dude can play. Nobody denies that. On top of that, he fills a need that the Cowboys tried to address last season. However, it wasn’t the sexy pick, and it deflated me because of what could have been. It’s cruel to have a player like Mayer compared to all-time great Jason Witten and the Cowboys voluntarily pass on him for a guy that virtually every expert gave a second-round grade. One of my buddies who is a die-hard Michigan fan texted me following the pick, saying, “You’re gonna love Mazi Smith paired with Micah Parsons and the rest of that defense.” Didn’t matter. He wasn’t who I wanted.

On top of that, Dak Prescott is coming off the worst season of his career, co-leading the league in interceptions despite missing five games. Why wasn’t the top priority making sure Dak had no more excuses to play poorly? You’re paying the guy $40 million a year. He eventually has to look like it.

With that said, it didn’t take long for my mind to change. I was driving home from my studio and decided to stop at Wendy’s since I hadn’t eaten all day. While I’m waiting at the drive-thru, I see a tweet from Cowboys reporter Patrik Walker. It stated the Cowboys had received multiple offers to trade back, including one from the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs who held the 31st overall pick, which they would eventually use on Kansas State edge rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah. The Cowboys were entertaining trading back until they discovered that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was trading up for a particular player. That player was Mazi Smith.

It may sound silly, but knowing one of the best coaches in the NFL wanted to trade up for the player you just took seems to redeem the once air-sucking feeling you felt when the pick was made. You know if Kansas City had taken him, he would become the next Warren Sapp. Because of that, I was able to stuff myself with chicken nuggets with a smile on my face knowing Dallas was smart enough to take a player the Chiefs wanted. Sounds crazy, I know.

The reality is that Mazi Smith solves a problem. He’s a 6-3, 326-pound monster who sits in the middle of the defensive line and makes it impossible for runners to hit their gaps. He’s a beast with freakish leverage and tremendous explosiveness. He’ll be a welcome addition to that defensive front alongside Osa Odighizuwa, Johnathan Hankins, Quinton Bohanna, and Neville Gallimore.

Scouts love his upside as a pass rusher as well. He’s a disruptor who will force attention freeing up the other physical freaks on Dallas’ defensive line like Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence to go one-on-one with inevitably slower offensive linemen. He accumulated 48 tackles last season to go along with 2½ tackles for loss. The stats don’t pop, but they’re not supposed to. His role doesn’t require a gaudy stat sheet. The pick is actually very good.

Trust me, I wanted Michael Mayer too, and maybe he’ll fall far enough for Dallas to make a move for him. Maybe Porter Jr. slips just enough to force Dallas’ hand. But this is the wonderful part about the draft. if your first-round pick sucked, there are six more rounds to make up for it. In this case, Dallas’ pick didn’t suck. It just wasn’t sexy.

Dan Quinn has a way of turning guys you’d never thought would contribute into big-time players. Smith has the tools to be that guy for Dallas and sure up a problem that has lingered for years.

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