The Dallas Cowboys spent 5 of their 7 draft picks in the 2016 NFL Draft on improving Rod Marinelli’s defense. After grabbing Ezekiel Elliott at fourth overall, this defensive trend certainly makes sense, as the team will try to emulate the 12-4 season of 2 years ago where the defense often found themselves on the field in favorable situations.
For a defense that showed some really good signs in the bleak 2015 season, this unit should be excited at the new additions joining the mix. The key will be finding roles for these rookies alongside the veterans.
Let’s attempt to do that for all 5 players:
LB Jaylon Smith (Round 2, Pick 34)
Unfortunately for Dallas, the role for Smith in 2016 may be the easiest to figure out. While the front office and coaching staff has shown some optimism for the Notre Dame product, it is very likely that he will not see the field this season.
Instead, look for Smith to be placed on the PUP list, where he can stay for the majority of the season while not occupying a 53 man roster spot.
DT Maliek Collins (Round 3, Pick 67)
Collins could find himself in an interesting position as a rookie this season, due to the current situation the Cowboys face at defensive end. With a depleted depth chart on the edge, thanks to Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence being suspended for the first 4 games of the regular season, the speculation has been that current defensive tackles like Tyrone Crawford or David Irving could see time over at the end spot.
If this happens, the 3T DT in Collins could find himself right in Marinelli’s rotation in the middle of the defensive line. Collins would play next to free agent acquisition Cedric Thornton, along with Terrell McClain and potentially Jack Crawford.
Personally, I would like to see Collins as part of the defensive tackle rotation, with T. Crawford staying at his position. While Crawford sees the majority of the snaps, Collins can help keep him fresh later on into games and into the season.
Either way, Marinelli loves the Nebraska product in Collins, and he will be given a chance to showcase all of his skills come training camp.
DE Charles Tapper (Round 4, Pick 101)
We just mentioned the potentially slippery situation the Cowboys could find themselves in at the defensive end position for the coming season, and they knew about the need for pass rush well before the draft.
However, the only true DE this draft class features is Oklahoma’s Charles Tapper. Tapper has a ton of upside and desirable traits, and should find himself in a very prominent role when Dallas kicks off against the Giants’ on September 11th.
Tapper is one of the few natural right defensive ends on the roster currently, with his clear competition being Benson Mayowa and UDFA Caleb Azubike. Of course, depending on how these players take advantage of their opportunity, 2015 breakout player Demarcus Lawrence could find himself playing back on the right side when he returns in week 5.
For now, the Cowboys 101st overall pick needs to be ready to get after quarterbacks in the silver and blue as soon as possible.
CB Anthony Brown (Round 6, Pick 189)
The Cowboys secondary is still in a dangerous place. The unit has been a sore spot for years, and Cowboys Nation has reason to be concerned that – for a team that wants to be contend for a Super Bowl in 2016 – Dallas did not do a ton to fix this position in the off season and draft.
The Cowboys passed on Jalen Ramsey in the first round, and are preparing to roll into the season after the return of leader Orlando Scandrick with a rejuvenated Morris Claiborne and a less-expensive Brandon Carr.
Anthony Brown, for a 6th round pick, jumps out on film as a guy that could feasibly contend for Claiborne or Carr’s spot in the secondary as early as training camp – or once the season gets going and either veteran is under-performing.
If not, Brown will have to be ready anyway, as Claiborne and Scandrick both carry health concerns that could see them miss time at any point.
Come training camp, Brown will also have to separate himself on the depth chart from Deji Olatoye and Terrance Mitchell to earn this role. These two players saw time on the field at the end of 2015 with some impressive results.
S Kavon Frazier (Round 6, Pick 212)
We just talked about the Cowboys’ secondary at the corner position, and we’ll focus on the safeties as we now look at Frazier – the team’s last defensive pick from this draft.
Last year’s first round selection, Byron Jones, has apparently found his long-term position at free safety – which finally gives the Cowboys a sustainable talent at this position. Before Jones’ came in, fans suffered through watching Dallas’ last line of defense blow tackles on a consistent basis with players like Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox.
Church and Wilcox are still on the roster for 2016, but both in contract years. The future expectation for Frazier is that he can potentially allow the team to move on from Church after this season – while Jones has already reduced Wilcox’s role.
Frazier and Church compare similarly in play style, and the Cowboys also have Jeff Heath locked up on a new four-year deal that will allow him to compete for a spot while holding his role as a core special teams player.
While the coaching staff does value the experience that Barry Church brings to the defense, it is not too far fetched to expect Frazier to either see some snaps on the field over Church this year, or be out there at the same time playing in the box as a psychical body against the run.
Whatever is in store for these rookies in 2016, let’s hope they can contribute to an already solid defensive unit that is starved for turnovers. Want to chime in with your expectations for this unit and class of rookies? Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org!
Thank you for reading, and stay posted here on Inside The Star for my look at the offensive rookies coming up!