This is member-exclusive content
icon/ui/info filled


Why Cowboys believe NT Mazi Smith stands to benefit from Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme

The former first-round pick is still adding weight and strength following shoulder surgery, Zimmer said.

FRISCO — Theoretically, no Cowboys player may benefit more from new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s presence than nose tackle Mazi Smith. The 2023 first-round pick will play in a system that deploys him in a similar manner to his college years at Michigan.

For now, that is what the premise shall remain.



“I haven’t had my hands on him yet, coming off of his deal, right?” defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina said Tuesday. “Once we get him on the field, I think he’ll be a lot more comfortable in Coach Zimm’s defense than previously. ...I think this more aligns with his build and what he’s known to do.”


Be the smartest Cowboys fan. Get the latest news.

Or with:

Smith continues to rehab from offseason shoulder surgery, which is expected to sideline him until training camp. After losing more weight last year than the Cowboys wanted, he remains lighter than preferred. Those two areas create headwind for Smith to make a developmental jump in his second NFL season, but the team hopes scheme will help.


Smith never looked comfortable last year.

His presnap stance was altered from Michigan, where his feet were more square. Smith routinely was late out of his stance in Dallas and struggled to anchor against double-team blocks. His late start at the snap made him prone to reach blocks that drove him out of the play, making life difficult for his linebackers.

To say that scheme was solely responsible for Smith’s struggles would not be a fair depiction.


But the Cowboys believe he’ll benefit from the comfort that Zimmer’s defense affords.

“I think he’s going to be able to play blocks more than just getting upfield,” Zgonina said. “Not disrespecting the previous coaches that were here or anything. It’s just a different system, a different style of D-line play that Coach Zimm has brought in. So, I think it suits him better. Instead of running upfield, he’s going to play blocks. He’s going to grind blocks and double teams and all that stuff, especially in the run game.”

Smith played only four snaps during the Cowboys’ playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.

The usage spoke to the previous staff’s trust level in his abilities. When the stakes were at their highest, he played his least.

“Obviously, he was a high draft pick,” Zimmer said. “I heard that he kind of struggled last year. We’re going to start with the basics: Get him in a good stance, get him using his hands the right way, getting his footwork the right way, and kind of go from there. I talked to him a little bit [Monday]. I asked him, ‘What weight do you feel comfortable at?’

“So, we’ve got to get him to that point first, get his strength back, and then we’ll let him go out here on the field. We anticipate that he’s going to be a good player like he was in college, but that’s how we have to go.”

Zimmer declined to disclose Smith’s target weight.

He said, however, that he thinks Smith told him he now weighs about 305 pounds. For context, the Cowboys list Smith at 328 on their digital roster. Smith weighed 323 pounds at last year’s NFL combine.


“He lost a lot of weight when he got here,” Zimmer said. “He was trying to be an attacking, 3-technique to get up the field. We’re going to be able to play blocks a little more than that, try not to get reached so linebackers know [which gaps] they’re supposed to fit [in the run game] and so on and so forth.”

Zgonina and assistant Greg Ellis are the new defensive line coaches.

The former players combine for more than 400 games of NFL experience, including the postseason. Ellis can somewhat relate to Smith’s specific situation. Dallas drafted him, too in the first round, choosing him eighth overall in 1998.


He personally has felt the expectations and pressure associated with that.

Patience, Ellis believes, is prudent from Smith.

“He seems like a kid who really wants to be good,” Ellis said. “Coming off any kind of injury, it can be difficult because you want to hurry up and get back out there and prove to everybody why they drafted you. And that’s good. But there is something to be said about following the protocol of rehabbing, so he has to make sure he’s following that as well.”

Related Stories
View More

Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.