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Next Man Up

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Next Man Up: Cowboys need Mazi to make big leap

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Like many teams around the league, the Cowboys sent a strong message in free agency. However, it wasn't in the form of adding a lot of players or keeping the majority of their own. What seems clear for the Cowboys is their willingness to give opportunities to younger players on the team.

This roster is loaded with players still on their rookie contracts that haven't had that breakout season just yet. Could it be this year? The Cowboys can only hope, especially considering they signed just one player (Eric Kendricks) in free agency and currently have just six picks in the NFL Draft later this month.

So the Cowboys have to lean on some of their previous drafts and free-agent signings to help fill out this roster.

Today, we'll continue the series with defensive tackle Mazi Smith.

  • Name: Mazi Smith
  • Position: Defensive Tackle
  • Experience: 2nd Year
  • Games Played/Starts: 17 / 3
  • Years Left on Contract: 3 (plus a 5th-year option in 2027)
  • How Acquired: 1st-round pick, 2023 (Michigan)
  • Key Stat: Smith had just 13 tackles last year, ranking 19th among the Cowboys defensive players.

The Past: It's safe to call Smith's rookie season disappointing, simply for the fact he didn't make much of an impact, something that is expected for first-round picks, especially from the Cowboys who have seen 10 of their last 13 first-round picks make at least one Pro Bowl. Smith joins Taco Charlton and Morris Claiborne as the only first-round picks since 2010 that haven't accomplished that feat. Obviously, the jury is still out on Smith after just one year, but the surprising part was his lack of success. Smith finished the year with just one sack and three tackles for loss.

The Present: The Cowboys lost two defensive tackles in free agency, including starter Johnathan Hankins (Seattle) along with Neville Gallimore (Miami). While there is a big opportunity now at defensive tackle, the tough part for Smith in 2024 is a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. That will likely keep him out for most of the offseason and it's going to be close to see if he can return in time to be a full participant in training camp. How he rehabs this injury this offseason will be crucial for Smith. Even if he can't participate in any of the OTAs or minicamp, just being in the meetings to learn Mike Zimmer's new defense should be a high priority for Smith.

The Future: This one is tough to answer for Smith, who already seems to be at a crossroads early in this career. Yes, he's only one season into a four-year contract that has the ability for a fifth-year option in 2027, but Smith wasn't impactful as a rookie and now has a shoulder injury that will likely sideline him for the offseason. And there is still a big debate over his playing weight, but that's going to be affected right now by his injury, which is sure to impact his conditioning. So the future is now for Smith, who enters Year 2 with a lot to prove. One thing he has going for him, especially when he gets to full strength, is just that – strength. Former teammate Hankins said Smith is one of the strongest players he's ever played with, and that was back in training camp before Smith had ever played a game. No matter the playing weight, or the defensive scheme now with Zimmer, Smith has the chance to be a difference-maker if he can utilize that strength to his advantage. If that can happen, Smith still has plenty of time to develop into the talented player the Cowboys are expecting him to be.

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