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Draft Central | 2023

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Spagnola: 'The Maz' Beefs Up Leaky Run Defense


FRISCO, Texas – Allow me to lay the Dallas Cowboys' first-round draft cards on the table.

Because when they finally turned in the pick at about 10:15 Thursday night, with less than a minute left on their 10-minute selection clock, there were tight ends of liking still on the board. At least one choice defensive end. All those guards. Couple of wide receivers. Cornerbacks.

But here is the deal.

In the 2022 season, the Cowboys went 12-5, finished second in the NFC East and won a first-round playoff game before bowing out in the second round to San Francisco again. They finished 22nd in the NFL against the run, giving up 129.3 rushing yards a game. Eleven of 17 opponents ran for at least 100 yards against the Cowboys.

In the five regular-season games they lost, Tampa Bay ran for 157 yards, Philadelphia ran for 136, Green Bay ran for 207, Jacksonville ran for 192 and Washington ran for 151.

And in the playoff loss to San Francisco, the 49ers ran for 113. My, oh my, you sense a trend.

Oh, but wait.

In the 2021 season playoff loss to San Francisco, the 49ers ran for 169 yards. In the 2018 playoff loss to the Rams, the eventual NFC champs ran for 273 yards. And this doesn't even take into account in 2020 the Cowboys giving up a single-season record of 158.8 yards rushing a game during that gosh-awful 6-10 season.

So don't even ask why entering through the double-wide doors out here at The Star comes one Mazi Smith, a defensive tackle, the Cowboys' pick at 26 in the first round. He's 6-3, so not one of those fire hydrant defensive tackles. He's 323 pounds, so a space-eater. At the NFL Scouting Combine he benched 200 pounds 34 times. Thirty-four now. And on top of that, "The Maz" has an 81-inch wingspan. That's nearly seven feet, wider than some backyard clotheslines.

Just what Mike McCarthy ordered, and evidently ever since the offseason began the head coach has been preaching how improving the team's run defense must improve. My gosh, if The Maz only crouches down in the middle of the defensive line at his size, just takes up space and does little else, this defensive front will improve.

No wonder Micah Parsons was jumping up and down when learning this Michigan team captain was the chosen one Thursday night. Bet linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark leaped off their couches too. Probably the secondary celebrated. As did the front office, knowing they had just selected a defensive tackle in the first round for the first time since making Russell Maryland the first pick in the 1991 draft and only the fifth all-time, following Maryland, Danny Noonan (1987), Randy White (1975) and Bob Lilly (1961).

It's no secret the key to the Dallas defense has been the pass rush and an ability to take the ball away, leading the league with 33 takeaways last year, 16 of those interceptions. So think about what those numbers might turn into if the Cowboys improve their run defense, creating more unfavorable down and distances for opposing offenses, allowing the Cowboys to turn that pass rush loose knowing teams are being forced to throw the ball even more.

As COO Stephen Jones said, "If we do a good job in the run, that gets us into what we do best."

Might even get the ball back to what still can be a potent offense in a much more timely fashion.

Now, settling on Mazi, we learned, came after much debate. And I'm told the debate came down to the big dude and offensive tackle the Cowboys considered a guard. It also came down to sifting through at least three proposals to trade down the Cowboys thoroughly debated, though figuring losing one of these two guys was not worth adding late picks in the third and fourth rounds, so they just made the selection. Didn't think it was worth losing a player they wanted – needed – for those picks.

But as for a guard, something the Cowboys have only selected twice in the first round in their entire draft history, there were and still are guards on the board as the second round begins Friday night. There were, in their minds, no more nose tackles of that size, which is an oxymoron since nothing about The Maz suggests something of a nose. We're talking more like a whale of a tackle. In every sense of the word.

And if you are among those anal folks worried the Cowboys didn't follow their board, Jerry Jones simply couldn't contain himself when asked about where Smith was on the all-important board, saying, "Fourteenth." And my understanding is they didn't have any more than 15 first-round grades on players.

So started to hear how Cowboys fans hated the fact the Eagles picked up equally mammoth defensive tackle Jalen Carter in the first round, a guy some graded the most talented player in the draft. Well, OK, maybe the Eagles are thinking it just might be a tad more difficult to run all those third-and-short QB sneaks up the gut having to move The Maz now when pushing Jalen Hurts from behind.

And know this was not a knee-jerk decision. Had heard prior to the draft Mazi Smith's name had come up as a potential pick in the first round. In fact, Jones pointed out as they were leaving the Star on Wednesday night, "We were walking out the door yesterday, and I hit (elbows McCarthy on the podium) and he said, 'Mazi.' This was one of those things that worked that way for us."

This means the Cowboys have Mazi Smith, Johnathan Hankins and Quinton Bohanna to monitor the middle of the defense, with 3-techniques Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore and Chauncey Golston. Plus, remember the Cowboys only re-signed the 31-year-old Hankins to a one-year veteran exception contract with Bohanna still needing to make that third-year jump.

All leaving McCarthy no longer asking, "Where's the beef?" on the defensive line.

Or as vice president of player personnel Will McClay said, and remember, this is what he does for a living and is a huge proponent of this pick, "I think we said it earlier, when Mike (McCarthy) came in here he talked about building a bigger, stronger, faster football team. We have continued to do that, and when you look at Mazi, you have a guy … teams run the football now and you see things change.

"You look at our division, he's a guy that can stop that, a guy that adds value to our defense as well."

Just what the doctor ordered, er, at least according to my nerdy tell-tale stats from above.

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