Commissioner Roger Goodell walks to the podium. The jingle comes over the TV. A life changes forever.
With the 26th pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys select Mazi Smith (6’3, 337 lb.), Defensive Tackle from Michigan.
With Notre Dame Tight End Michael Mayer still on the board, the Cowboys address a need that delivered one of the loudest, most frequent complaints from fans, the run defense. Dallas finished 22nd in the NFL last season, allowing 130.2 rushing yards per game.
Smith is a Michigan man through and through. Born in Grand Rapids, Smith stayed local to go to high school at East Kentwood. He would go on to drive right past East Lansing (home of Michigan State) to put on maize and blue in Ann Arbor.
The Michigan local stepped onto the campus as a four-star recruit and the 11th-ranked defensive tackle in the country, according to 247.
After playing in just seven games as an underclassman, before appearing in all 14 games in his junior and senior seasons, including a pair of College Football Playoff Semifinal games. In the most recent appearance, he recorded his first collegiate forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the 51-45 loss to TCU. They both came in the final play of the third quarter, giving the Wolverines life, as they trailed 41-30 going into the fourth quarter.
Smith closed out his college career on a high note, earning consensus First Team All-Big Ten honors, and winning the Wolverines’ Defensive Player of the Year award.
As he trades in the maize for silver, Smith will likely be plugged in immediately. He enters the Cowboys’ position group as the heaviest defensive tackle. By comparison, noteworthy nose tackle Dontari Poe was listed at 6’3, 342 when he joined the Cowboys after a long, successful career in Kansas City.
One of the big discussion points in the coming days will be about drafting for need vs. best player available, and which category Smith will fall into.
While Smith (30th on Mel Kiper’s rankings) was ranked higher than Notre Dame Tight End Michael Mayer (32), there was a sense that Mayer would be a likely choice, assuming he was still available.
The run defense was a problem. So was the lack of a reliable pass catcher who could be a true threat alongside Ceedee Lamb. Gallup never got fully healthy. The connection with Noah Brown proved unreliable. Dalton Schultz took a step back from his 2021 season. Dak needs all of the help he is going to get if he is going to have a chance to continue to prove his worth with a contract year in the near future.
The Cowboys addressed those needs, by signing Brandon Cooks. The door is still open for T.Y. Hilton. The hope is that Gallup will heal up and get right.
Even after bringing in Johnathan Hankins, the run defense still did not improve. In the six games that Hankins played in, the Cowboys allowed 141 rushing yards per game.
That includes consecutive 200-yard rushing games by the Bears and Packers bookending the bye week, and a low of 52 rushing yards allowed to Tampa in the NFC Wild Card Game. If Dan Quinn could not find a solution, then it was time to bring in reinforcements.
The Cowboys will look for Smith to carry with him the success of Michigan’s run defense, which ranked seventh in the nation last season with 97.9 rush yards allowed. That total was second best among power five programs, only behind the generational Georgia Bulldogs defense.
Smith becomes the first defensive tackle since Russell Maryland to be drafted by the Cowboys in the first round. Maryland was the #1 overall pick in 1991.