If you were to ask most observers who the most influential decision-makers are for the Dallas Cowboys, just about everybody would start with Jerry Jones. Rightfully so, as he is the team's owner, president, and general manager. Most, but not all people would rightfully move onto Jerry's son, Stephen Jones next. He's the team's CEO and executive vice president, so that also makes sense.
Not nearly as many people would be able to rattle off the name of Will McClay, who is the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel. But he is an integral part of the franchise's decision-making process, especially when it comes to the NFL Draft. McClay has been in Dallas since 2009, but his influence has grown immeasurably in recent years.
Since McClay was given even more influence in the draft process following the team's subpar (and controversial) 2017 draft, the Cowboys have been among the best drafters in the NFL. During that time, they have landed players like Leighton Vander Esch, Connor Williams, Michael Gallup, Dorance Armstrong, Dalton Schultz, and Cedrick Wilson (2018), Connor McGovern and Tony Pollard (2019), CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, Neville Gallimore, and Tyler Biadasz (2020), Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, Quinton Bohanna, and Israel Mukuamu (2021), and Tyler Smith, Sam Williams, Jake Ferguson, DaRon Bland, and Damone Clark (2022). That's half of the team's expected starters in 2023, as well as five more players who were previously starters but moved onto other teams.
All of which is to say there's a reason why, when McClay speaks in the draft room, what he says carries a lot of sway. So it should not be surprising that when the team was on the clock with the No. 26 overall pick last weekend, McClay was able to bring Cowboys brass along to the selection of Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith, whom the team was considering alongside an offensive guard (rumored to be Syracuse's Matthew Bergeron, who was eventually drafted at No. 38 by the Atlanta Falcons).
Will McClay is an invaluable part of Cowboys’ draft process. One example here as team deliberates between NT Mazi Smith and, I believe, OL Matthew Bergeron at No. 26 overall. Behind-the-scenes look from @dallascowboys video team. Part of its draft special: https://t.co/xGd0ZHkg25 pic.twitter.com/Aih93TtSMl— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) May 1, 2023
"Personally, I would go with Mazi," McClay said. "Because I know that he helps us now. With the guard -- I love the guard, too. My question is, you're adding something to it where we have depth. I think the defensive lineman gives you an immediate starter and something for the future."
After both Jerry Jones and Mike McCarthy had something to say about how they were torn between Smith and the unnamed guard because they really liked both players and thought both would help the team along the line of scrimmage, McClay sold the pick of Smith even further.
"We've had offensive linemen there [on our board]. We've had the opportunity to pick them," he said. "We've not had a defensive lineman -- interior defensive lineman -- that high in quite some time."
If you take a look at Dallas' draft history, that is almost certainly true. The Cowboys had not drafted a defensive tackle in the first round since 1991, when they took Russell Maryland with the No. 1 overall pick. Their highest-selected defensive tackle since then was Trysten Hill, who was drafted with the No. 58 overall pick in 2019, thanks to the heavy influence of former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Other than Hill, the Cowboys had used just two picks before the sixth round on defensive tackles since 2000.
Using the No. 26 overall pick on Smith is a lot of faith to put in the player, in McClay and his staff's evaluation, and in defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to unlock the best version of a player who is an elite athlete but did not have a ton of production in college. Time will tell whether or not the Cowboys got this one right, but they can do worse than listening to the words of McClay, given his extensive track record.