With the No. 26 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys selected defensive tackle Mazi Smith out of Michigan.
At the time, Cowboys fans might not have been happy with the selection. Many fans might not have even known who Smith was and probably would have "preferred" tight end Michael Mayer or guard Steve Avila.
But selecting Smith 26th overall was the best decision for the Cowboys because of what he brings to the team. He'll be a force to be reckoned with inside, something Dallas desperately needed the past two seasons.
In 2021, the Cowboys' defense ranked 20th against the run and allowed 115.9 yards per game. They also gave up 169 yards on the ground to the San Francisco 49ers in a loss in the Wild Card Round that year.
Last season, Dallas wasn't much better against the run. They ranked 22nd in the same category and gave up 124.4 yards per game. In their five regular season losses in 2022, that number jumped to 137.4. That's not a coincidence.
Two games from last year that stick out are Week 10 against the Packers and Week 15 against the Jaguars. Green Bay ran for 207 yards in an overtime win and both Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon averaged at least five-plus yards per carry in the contest.
Five weeks later, Jacksonville ran for 192 yards in an overtime win. Travis Etienne ran for over 100 yards, and Dallas allowed 45 rush yards on a crucial fourth quarter drive that got the Jaguars back in the game.
What Smith brings up front will prevent teams from running all over the Cowboys in games.
Why Mazi Smith was a perfect draft pick by the Cowboys
In his senior year, Smith had 48 tackles (2.5 for loss), 0.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. His numbers don't stick out as elite, but there's more to his game than the stats. In fact, he helped lead Michigan to one of the best run defenses in the country last season.
The Wolverines ranked seventh in Division I in rush yards allowed per game (97.9), 13th in total rush yards allowed (1,371), and 10th in yards per rush (3.26). Michigan's run defense in 2022 was top-tier, and Smith was a big part of that success.
The rookie might not come in and put up big numbers, similar to his Michigan days. But the impact he'll make upfront and in the run game will be a difference-maker in Dallas.
This is what executive vice president Stephen Jones had to say about the Smith pick to reporters after the draft:
"“We did have options. 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.”"
Another reason why Smith was the right selection at 26 is his ability to be a day-1 starter right away. The Cowboys took a player who fills a need upfront and someone who can step in and make an impact immediately just like Tyler Smith did in 2022.
The Cowboys are ready to compete for a Super Bowl, They've won 12 regular season games in back-to-back years but haven't been able to get over the playoff hump. The moves they made this offseason will hopefully help them break their championship drought.
Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore were big pickups for the Cowboys to fill obvious team needs. The Smith selection filled another need, and he'll be able to make an impact defensively in Week 1.
Smith, Hankins, Osa Odighizuwa, and Neville Gallimore will likely rotate at the DT position this season. How much the rookie will play remains unseen, but he'll definitely have his moments to shine and be the run-stuffer Dallas drafted him to be.