‘We did have options’: Cowboys trust their board, get their man in Mazi Smith
The Cowboys brain trust earlier this week preached the importance of sticking to their draft board. No matter how unpredictable the first round would get, they suggested, trusting their evaluation process would guide them toward the best decision with the 26th pick.
When their turn came, they were faced with several prospects the rest of the world had given higher grades to, even a couple that were assumed would be long gone.
But in the end, the Cowboys kept their word. They stuck to their board.
Or so they say.
“We did have options,” team executive vice president Stephen Jones told reporters Thursday night after making Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith their first selection of 2023. “And we had two or three guys that were rated the same. We had a really good debate over who was the best guy for us, mainly between big men. Obviously, Mazi brings an element to our run defense that, other than [Johnathan] Hankins, we don’t have. We just felt like it was a great fit for us, and it really makes us a better defense at the end of the day.”
Head coach Mike McCarthy was just as enthusiastic, even though his offense will now have to wait until Day 2 to perhaps find a new playmaker.
“We love everything about Mazi,” the coach told media members. “He was here on the 30 visits. Our personnel guys had high grades on him. He’s a great fit for us.”
The 6-foot-3-inch 337-pounder built a reputation in Ann Arbor of being a physical freak, with athletic testing that was practically off the charts. He’ll be a huge presence in stopping the run, but some outlets openly question whether he’ll bring much to a defensive line on passing downs.
The Cowboys believe they’ll be able to get that out of the 21-year-old. What they can’t coach, though, is the raw ability he already possesses.
“When Mike came in here [in 2020] he talked about building a bigger, stronger, faster football team, and we have continued to do that,” explained Will McClay, the Cowboys vice president of player personnel. “Teams run the football now and you see things change. You look at our division [ed. note: the Giants and Eagles finished in the top 5 leaguewide last season in team rushing yards]. He’s a guy that can stop that, a guy that adds value to our defense as well. I think there is an ability to rush the passer. You watch the Michigan tape; he is playing in a flat stance, doesn’t get after the passer. Well, you change things up, you put him with Dan [Quinn, defensive coordinator] and A.D. [defensive line coach Aden Durde] within our defense- not only can he stop the run, but we feel like there is upside in rushing the passer as well and being a disruptive force.”
But the reality is, sacks and quarterback pressure would be icing on the cake. Mazi Smith was drafted specifically to create havoc at the line of scrimmage on running plays.
“Some of our main strengths [are] taking the ball away and pass rush,” McCarthy added. “We just wanted to get better on earlier downs, and we think this is a great fit for us.”
It is something of a philosophy shift, one that comes from having a deep roster that features both multiskilled players who can line up anywhere and anytime with a handful of specialists who rotate in and out depending on the situation.
That’s been a significant part of the evolution under McCarthy and Quinn.
“This isn’t something we thought of tonight,” team owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “It’s something that’s been in the making for a couple of years. Because of the structure of this defense and Mike’s philosophy on how we want to handle our complementary football, this pick and the player and the style he plays became more valuable than when I was sitting there 10 years ago for the Cowboys.”
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Jones was reminded that it was it was actually 34 years ago when he made Miami’s Russell Maryland the first overall draft pick in 1991. That was the last time Dallas had used a first-round selection on a defensive tackle.
“At the time,” Jones recalled Thursday, “we got a lot of flack for overpicking him. Russell was undersized at the time, but of course, he had a great career here.”
Maryland went on to be a key ingredient to the franchise’s three Super Bowl wins of the 1990s.
The Cowboys obviously hope Smith follows a similar path, having done enough homework on him to feel he’s headed in the right direction.
“We know everything, everything, everything about his background, and that’s part of the deal,” Jones said. “Everything. And we wanted him.”
Because that’s what their board told them.
But about that… just where was Smith exactly, that the Cowboys passed over so many other prospects ranked higher by others?
“He was on the board at a position for us to pick at 26,” McClay stonewalled.
Jerry, however, caved.
“Okay, 14. I think he was 13 or 14,” he laughed. “Who gives a [expletive]? We got him.”
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