FRISCO, Texas (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys targeted the leakiest part of their solid defense in the NFL draft, taking Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith with the 26th overall pick Thursday night.
As much as the Cowboys would like to add offensive firepower for quarterback Dak Prescott, the run defense on a unit led by pass rushing star Micah Parsons needed some help, too.
Dallas led the NFL in takeaways for the second consecutive year in 2022 — with the Cowboys reaching the playoffs both seasons — but the run defense dropped six spots to No. 22. The Cowboys were getting pushed around enough to trade for Johnathan Hankins during the season, and re-signed the player acquired from Las Vegas.
The 6-foot-3, 323-pound Smith gives the Cowboys even more size on the interior of the defensive line.
Parsons approved, tweeting "Man, let's freaking work!!!!!!"
"I've been strong my whole life," Smith said. "My mom say I came out of the womb looking like I did pushups in there."
Asked what he would bring to the Dallas defense, Smith said, "A big dog."
"A big physical guy, guy that's never been afraid of contact ... a guy who's going to get in somebody's face, a guy who ain't going to make it easy," Smith said.
It's the fourth time in five years the Cowboys have taken a defensive tackle in the first three rounds, but the first time the club has drafted a true defensive tackle in the first round since Russell Maryland with the No. 1 overall pick in 1991.
Defensive tackle Trysten Hill was the top Dallas draft pick as a second-rounder in 2019 but didn't finish his rookie contract before he was released.
When the Cowboys lost a home wild-card game to San Francisco two seasons ago, their weak run defense was a big reason.
Stopping the run was more of a season-long problem in 2022, and Dallas is in the NFC East with a pair of top-five rushing offenses from last season in defending division and NFC champion Philadelphia and the New York Giants, another playoff qualifier.
"When you go through the evaluation postseason, it was clear we wanted to improve our run defense," coach Mike McCarthy said. "It was a focal point. I think this clearly does that. One of our many strengths, we take the ball away, pass rush. We just want to get better on earlier downs."
Dallas picked Smith after Buffalo moved a spot ahead of the Cowboys and drafted Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid. Tight end was a popular position with pundits after Dalton Schultz left the Cowboys in free agency a year after playing on the franchise tag.
"That was not an issue of offense or defense," owner/general manager Jerry Jones said. "It got down, fortunately for us, player to player, player specific."
Smith was a starter on both of Michigan's College Football Playoff teams in 2021 and 2022 after playing parts of two other seasons.
The Cowboys also were among the NFL leaders in sacks, another reason they believed stopping the run was the missing piece for their defense.
"We did have options," executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said. "So we had a really good debate over who was the best guy for us. Mazi obviously brings an element to our run game, stopping the run, that other than Hankins, we don't have."