2023 NFL Draft: How Michigan NT Mazi Smith fits with the Dallas Cowboys

Michigan defensive lineman Mazi Smith (58) pressures Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) during the second half Oct. 15, 2022 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Michpenn 101522 Kd 0016511

After years of largely ignoring the nose tackle position, the Dallas Cowboys finally made a significant investment between the A-gaps on their defense, selecting Michigan nose tackle Mazi Smith with the 26th overall pick.

Despite being listed north of 335 pounds, Smith is one of this draft class' premier athletes, regardless of position, as evidenced by the fact that he ranked No. 1 on Bruce Feldman's “College Football Freaks List” prior to the 2022 season.

Of course, Smith is prone to feats of strength on and off the football field, but his agility is the most impressive, as Feldman reported that Smith ran a blistering 4.41-second short shuttle and a 6.95-second three-cone drill — both of which would have led defensive tackles at the combine in 2021 — prior to the season. Unfortunately, Smith didn't participate in either drill at the combine or his pro day due to a hamstring injury.

While that's all fine and dandy, it wouldn't matter if Smith didn't pair that freakish athleticism with impressive game tape. And with back-to-back 75.0-plus-graded seasons, Smith checks that box with no problem.

Impressively, Smith plays with good pad level despite his size, enabling him to leverage his massive lower half to hold his ground at the point of attack and swallow up gaps against the run. The former four-star recruit pairs that lower-body strength with Deontay Wilder-esque power in his hands, as he routinely bludgeons offensive linemen on contact, putting himself in a great position to stack and shed blocks with ease against the run. Smith's 11.6% run-stop rate ranked 15th among all interior defensive linemen in college football in 2022. Moreover, notice how Smith continually plays from a rooted and constant base, as it enables him to maximize his power input at the point of attack, which will be the catalyst for him occupying and defeating single and double teams in the NFL.

Many will lament Smith's delayed get-off as a reason to deflate his draft stock, but that ignores the fact that Smith was playing a read-and-react role as a head-up defender on a majority of his snaps. Instead of firing out of the ball and penetrating his gap as a shaded defender, he was tasked with mirroring and controlling blocks to help Michigan fit all the necessary gaps while playing with light boxes. Put Smith in Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's scheme, and the Michigan defensive tackle's athleticism will enable him to shine.

Furthermore, while he has yet to become an effective pass rusher, Smith brings rare athleticism that indicates he has an immense amount of untapped potential in that area — and Quinn's hands-on approach could be the Konami Code that unlocks the 337-pounder's pass-rush potential.

Nonetheless, while he won't contribute much as a pass-rusher early on, he can still make a positive impact against pass plays in other ways. He can help improve Dallas' play-action defense, as the linebackers won't have to immediately trigger to their gap whenever there is run action, allowing them to maintain better depth to defend play-action pass plays.

Overall, Smith's presence will help solidify Dallas' interior run defense and finally give its linebackers the privilege of playing behind a nose tackle that can actually help keep them clean from being immediately blocked by interior offensive linemen claiming to the second level. While he's unlikely to light up the box score during his career, his play will be the catalyst to many other Cowboys defenders putting up career-best numbers.

The Cowboys defense just took a major step forward.


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