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Nick at Nite

Nick at Nite: Being unrealistic starts by comparing


(Nick at Nite is a weekly column from staff writer Nick Harris, who joined the staff in April 2023. After over four years working in college football recruiting for Rivals and 247Sports, Harris brings a wealth of knowledge from not only the college landscape, but as well as a scouting perspective that translates to covering the NFL.)

FRISCO, Texas — Whether you're a coach, player, general manager or even a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, expectations are part of the job description.

For a first-round pick, that expectation stands even firmer.

With a rich history of first-round picks that have gone on to be All-Pros and/or Hall of Famers, the expectation is to stand tall among a group that includes Emmitt Smith, Bob Lilly and Troy Aikman.

But it doesn't only stand true from a historical perspective. Micah Parsons has walked in and excelled on a national scale off the bat since his arrival in 2021. CeeDee Lamb has found himself in the upper echelon of receivers in the NFL in just three seasons. Tyler Smith stepped in as a rookie and took on a challenge at a position that he did not have a lot of experience at…and excelled. Tyron Smith. Leighton Vander Esch. The list runs long.

When rookie defensive tackle Mazi Smith was drafted in April, the conversation about his immediate contributions to the defense was already being had. And it was for good reason.

Smith's 81.3 run defense grade (per PFF) rated among the top grades in all of college football last season as his massive 6-foot-3, 337-pound frame filled the gaps while his strength brought the tackles home – whether if it was him getting credit for the tackle or him putting his teammates in position to get it. 

With so much world class strength and elite traits that translated at the college level, the conversation blossomed into additional things he could add to his game and skillset. 

"Man, the pass rushing ability is there. There's Aaron Donald strength to him. His athleticism is sneaky, he can be just a bigger Micah Parsons in the interior. I can't wait for him to show all of that next year!"

Well, therein lies the issue.

An expectation that's predicated on what others have done doesn't take into context the ability to do it alone. Sure, the first-round picks as of late have hit in Dallas and have been reliable almost immediately, but is it fair to expect the same from a late first-round guy whose sole responsibility coming in is to simply stop the run?

Let's get it straight. Mazi Smith will not be on an all-rookie team. He won't lead the team in quarterback pressures. He won't be who you think of a year from now when you're talking about first-round standouts. And that's completely OK. That's not what he was brought to Dallas to do in year one.

His job in 2023 is to simply stop the run. Period. Everything else will be something he will have to add down the line to develop further. Not cheating the process when developing rookies is so important, and when unrealistic expectations predicated on comparisons start falling on his shoulders, the process gets vaulted out of the windows of AT&T Stadium.

Don't get me wrong. The preseason showing so far from Mazi Smith has been objectively poor. His run defense grades are among the worst in the league, his pass rush has not generated any push, and his world-class strength has been overpowered with technique.

But there's also a key point a lot of people are forgetting when it comes to expectations coming in. I think subconsciously there's an expectation for Smith to live up to what Lamb, T. Smith, Parsons and others have done before him. Inherently, that's not what it's going to be because he will not be asked to do what those did.

Mazi Smith can only be one guy, and that's Mazi Smith. It's OK to come back to Earth a bit. Expecting anything other than what he is supposed to bring in year one would be cheating his process and destroying the potential of what he was brought to Dallas to do.

As for year two and beyond, we'll get there when we get there. As for now, let's just let Mazi, Mazi.

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