Why does Will McClay says Cowboys need 2024 impact from Mazi Smith, frustrating 2023 draft class?

Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay admittedly loathes draft grades immediately after a draft or even after the first year.

He believes it takes at three years to truly judge a draft.

But after a 2024 NFL Draft in which the Cowboys selected two would-be starters in left tackle Tyler Guyton and center Cooper Beebe, picked in the first and third rounds, respectively, McClay knows the time is now for the team’s disappointing 2023 draft class to step up.

None of the eight picks became full-time starters as rookies.

Most frustrating was nose tackle Mazi Smith, who was picked in the first round and was expected to become a walk-in starter and make an instant impact on the team’s run defense. Yet, Smith lost 30 pounds as a rookie, participated in just 28 percent of the snaps and recorded just 13 tackles in three starts.

He was asked to log just four snaps in the shocking season-ending loss to the Green Bay Packers when the Cowboys defense got run over and run through.

Tight end Luke Schoonmaker, picked in the second round, was set back in minicamp by plantar fasciitis and never got untracked. He played in 17 games, but recorded no starts and caught just eight passes for 65 yards.

The most distressing turn of events came in preseason with linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, a promising third-round pick who was expected to play a role on defense, suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the season.

Defensive end Viliami Fehoko, a fourth-round pick who was lauded as a potential star by former defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, can be added to the list as he played in no games as a rookie.

“Those guys have to make a jump for us to succeed, and they’ve been in the system for a year,” McClay said. “When you draft players, those players don’t always immediately step in and fill that role. But when you’re drafting a player, you’re drafting him for the four to five years of their contract, and you’re trying to get a return on investment. We need those guys to take a jump now based on the cap and the way things are. And they just have to step up. At the end of the day, that’s exactly what it is.”

The way things for for the Cowboys is simple. They lost roughly five players in free agency, including three defensive linemen. They are strapped by the salary cap, which is one they only signed one potential starters in free agency before the draft and spent lowest money in free agency in the NFL by more than $20 million.

They are back in the market looking for bargain-basement finds after the draft.

But they need the 2023 class to make an impact in 2024.

Smith and Overshown are slated to be starters. Schoomaker is the No. 2 tight end behind Jake Ferguson but will play a significant role. The Cowboys need Fehoko to provide depth at end following the losses of Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler.

“Guys that have to step up, it’s their time now,” McClay said. “We’ve lost a number of really quality vets that have been on our roster, that have been with us for a while. These young guys need to step up. There’s no other way about it.”