Darnell Leslie became the first Dallas Cowboys player to sign with the team from Monmouth University since Miles Austin on Tuesday, looking to follow a similar successful career path as he fights to earn his star at outside linebacker/defensive end.
I'm biased, but Miles Austin will always be one of my favorite Cowboys because of his transition from the MU Hawks to the Cowboys - and what it meant for this area, covering the Cowboys from the Jersey Shore.
I had a chance to interview Leslie on what it was like to sign with America's Team on his birthday, his college experience, early career advice he's received from Austin himself, and initial impressions on life in the NFL.
You can listen and read the full interview below:
Q: Take us through yesterday's experience with your birthday and the signing with the Cowboys becoming official. You were with Tampa Bay early in the offseason, so you've already bounced around a bit and have gotten a feel for what its like to be with an NFL team. Yesterday must have been pretty exciting for you, how did you spend the day, where were you when you got the news, and how did you celebrate both achievements?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I got the word that I would probably be coming back to the Cowboys on Sunday after mini camp ended. They told the tryout guys to pack their stuff and we headed to the airport. One of the personnel staff emailed me and said that there was a strong chance I would be coming back the next day to possibly sign with the team.
They had to work out the roster, but I had a good feeling I'd be coming back. As soon as I got home that Sunday night, I had a text on Monday morning letting me know that they wanted me out there the next morning - which happened to be my birthday. It was pretty exciting for me and definitely a dream come true to be on an NFL roster, but for it to happen on my birthday was pretty special and it was probably one of the best gifts anyone can ask for.
Q: What do you think you can take from your short time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before this to the Cowboys in adjusting to the game along with the other rookies and tryout players?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I can take a lot from Tampa Bay alone. I was there for four days doing their rookie tryout and the biggest thing I got from them is that the speed of the game is a lot faster. Its a lot more up tempo. The plays are definitely more complex than they are in college, especially for me having never played linebacker until a few months ago. It was a big learning curve for me getting that crash course in Tampa, but the plays we learned there came from the Defensive Coordinator we have here with the Cowboys (Rod Marinelli) as well.
A lot of the things I was learning there were similar, and that allowed me to get my feet wet. When I got to Dallas I felt a lot more comfortable in a lot of my assignments.
Q: What has your experience with Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli been like preparing for this season?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I'm not directly working with Coach Marinelli but I've seen the way he coaches the linemen on the other side of the field and there's a lot of energy. Those guys talk highly about him and from the experiences I've had with him in team meetings I love his energy and he's a good guy. He wants to get us better and elevate our games to the next level.
Q: How would you describe your game and the traits you can bring to this team on the edge?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Rushing the edge on certain blitzes that we have for the outside linebacker is going to be the most natural thing for me to do because I played DE all throughout college. That along with my instincts and being an athlete will help me a lot at any position really. Its football and you have to react at any position. Those two things are really going to help me succeed in the NFL.
Q: The Cowboys pass rush has been an area fans have called for improvements with for a while now, even still as they used the 28th overall pick on Taco Charlton. Is this something you've gotten a sense of as you compete for a spot on a team that's struggling to find consistent pass rushers?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Taco is a great player as a first round pick. I haven't seen him play much but with his attributes and college film he's going to help the defense tremendously as a rookie. As for me, I'm not too sure about how big of an impact I can have on this team coming from a smaller school. I have a lot more to prove but once I get my feet wet and get more experience I'll feel more comfortable and can help in any way possible.
Q: Every team wants to say they have a high level of competitveness in the way they practice and prepare. How has fitting in with the other rookies on the Cowboys been in this culture that is so built up on competition under Jason Garrett though, and who have you been able to reach out to?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Its gone well, there are four rookie LBs that we have in our group and we're all pretty cool. They've embraced me pretty well, and they're all from different schools and levels. We have similar but different backgrounds in terms of competition that we've played but the rookie class in total is a great group of guys. We're all very well mannered and well versed. As a unit we'll be able to compete with any other rookie class honestly, we have a whole bunch of talent.
Q: What do you think it says about your situation in the NFL with one of the better teams in the league when you have fellow rookies like Chidobe Awuzie leaving rookie mini camp to graduate Colorado but commit to making it back the next day and the Cowboys projecting themselves as a brand everyone knows about even with your background on the East Coast?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Its definitely a different feeling being here now. Chido had to go back for his graduation and that shows a ton of character, he wanted to finish out what he did in college and I respect that 100%.
I don't think I've fully soaked in the moment, I'm stuck in it right now, because I haven't come from a program close to this in my four years at Monmouth on the East Coast. It was a smaller school with not the highest or lowest level facilities but coming here to the brand new facility is a shell shock. Seeing the view, the weight rooms, and everything else is crazy.
In a few more days I'll start to realize this is the NFL and the next level, I have to let it help me make me better.
Q: What excites you the most about moving forward with this team knowing the opportunity that is ahead for them as a full team, and when you get to the point where you're on the field with a player like Jason Witten, where do you see yourself and the team going?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I definitely see myself making the team on special teams. I'm pretty sure that being a rookie and a smaller school guy without the most explosive film will lend itself to making me a special teams guy and adding needed depth if a guy goes down. With Pro Bowlers like Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, and Jason Witten I definitely think this is a Super Bowl caliber team and we saw that last year with their record and performance. They're only going to get better and the next step for us is definitely the Super Bowl.
Q: What was your favorite team growing up?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I was born and raised in Gaithersburg, Maryland, so anybody can guess it was definitely the Redskins. It's a hard one to bite but I'm a Cowboy now and this is my team.
Q: Is there a QB that you would want to sack the most in the NFL right now?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Nah, I'm just trying to go out there and play and earn a spot to make the most of this moment.
Q: Getting back to your Monmouth career, Miles Austin was the headlining player for guys from your school in the NFL as the first to do so with the Cowboys. He became a fan favorite for Cowboys fans in the area. How much do you know about his story and not only his career as a starter but his beginnings and process as a UDFA in his own right?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): Miles coming from Monmouth is like the superhero for all of our football players and athletes that want to go to the next level. He's always come back to the school and given back which we all appreciate. In this moment he's embraced me as a younger brother and I've seen him a bunch in the facility. He's been in my ear about doing as much as I can, about being noticed and learning the playbook to keep my foot in the door here and make the most of this.
I haven't picked his brain yet about what he did to get and stay here so long but I'm definitely going to have that conversation with him in the near future.
Q: Did Miles have anything to say about the draft process that players like yourself have to go through, and what was that experience like for you looking back at it?
Darnell Leslie (@DarnellJamar_): I think you're right in saying that coming from a smaller school takes twice as much work to get noticed. That's all part of the game because we don't play Alabama, LSU, or those bigger name schools. We have to prove ourselves more. This draft process went in my favor and I had my fair chances of getting exposure.
My agent did a hell of a job getting my name out there and getting me workouts with teams. At that point it was up to me to produce and convince these teams that I'm worth taking a shot on.
I think this whole process has been pretty fair for me.
Maliek Collins Playing Excellent for Cowboys Defense
For the Dallas Cowboys on the interior, a lot of the news consistently surround the availability of Defensive Tackle David Irving, but Maliek Collins is playing excellent right now. While I'm willing to be very patient with Irving because of the elite talent he brings, Maliek Collins should continue to start for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique defensive tackle.
Collins has been a player that the Cowboys have bounced between the nose tackle and the 3T position with the hopes of getting their best players on the field, and because of the lack of a consistent presence at the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Well, with Antwaun Woods taking control at the 1T, Collins has been able to play at the position where he's at his best. The 3-tech.
He hasn't put huge numbers in the sack column this season, but that doesn't mean he's been absent from being the disruptive player he's been through his first two and a half seasons.
During the Dallas Cowboys five game winning streak, Maliek Collins has led the Dallas Cowboys defensive tackles in total pressures with 13, according to Pro Football Focus. PFF combines sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries into their "pressures." Collins hasn't recorded a sack during the winning streak, but he has four quarterback hits and nine hurries. He's tied with Tyrone Crawford for third in total pressures behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory over the last five weeks.
Over the last five weeks, Collins leads the defensive tackles in solo tackles with five and is tied with Crawford and Antwaun Woods with three run stops on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. Collins has also has two tackles for loss in the last five games and recovered Tyrone Crawford's force fumble on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Collins had six sacks in his rookie season when he played primarily as the 3T, which allowed him to see more one-on-one blocks against opposing interior offensive linemen. Especially with the way the rest of the defensive line is playing.
With the Cowboys on the road to face the Indianapolis Colts this week, Collins is going to have a tough matchup with a very good Colts offensive line, in particular, rookie Quentin Nelson. Collins ability to get pressure on Andrew Luck on the interior is a huge key for the Dallas Cowboys this week. We know that Gregory and Lawrence will get their pressures, but if Andrew Luck is able to step up into a clean pocket, it will make for a much more challenging game for the Cowboys secondary.
Collins has proved to be up to any task over the last five weeks and if he's able to keep playing at such a high level, he'll make the Cowboys coaching staff, and the rest of Cowboys Nation forget about using other defensive tackles. For the Cowboys to make a deep push in the playoffs, they'll need Collins to be a big time player for them moving forward.
Amari Cooper Wins 2nd NFC Offensive Player of the Week Award of 2018
For the second time in just three weeks, Dallas Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper has been named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.
Cooper scored three touchdowns, including the game winner in overtime, to lead the Cowboys to victory last Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has 10 catches for 217 yards, which led all NFL receivers last week.
After his record-setting performance during week 14, @AmariCooper9 is the FIRST #DallasCowboys to win NFC Player of the Week twice in a season! → https://t.co/kvBDIeOgBd #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote #ProBowlVote
As the official website stated, Cooper is the first Cowboy to win the award twice in the same year. He's also the first Cowboy to be named Offensive Player of the Week since Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
Before this year, Elliott was the only Dallas player to win the Offensive award in three seasons. Cooper has now done it twice in three weeks.
Since being traded to the Cowboys, Amari Cooper has amassed 40 catches for 642 yards and six touchdowns.
His wasted time in Oakland may keep Cooper out of the Pro Bowl this year, but he's already become a fan favorite in Cowboys Nation. Congratulations to Amari for another well-deserved award!
David Irving Out Again for Cowboys, Does Defense Need Him?
Dallas Cowboys Defensive Tackle David Irving, once a key member of the team's defense, will not make his return after all against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. For the second straight week, Irving was reportedly trending towards suiting up before being ruled out. The Cowboys haven't missed his unique presence for 13 weeks (playing against the Jaguars and Redskins), including through an ongoing four game win streak that began with a win against these Eagles on the road.
In that road win, veteran Tyrone Crawford recorded a sack and three tackles, while Antwaun Woods added two for a Dallas defense that held Philadelphia to 23 first downs and 71 rushing yards. The Eagles managed to cross the Cowboys' 30-yard line just four times.
There are many scenarios in which the Cowboys could have cut ties with Irving for not being worth the off-field trouble he's caused - beginning the season with a four game suspension. The absolute best case scenario is what they've realized amidst this turnaround, with other defensive linemen taking advantage of the opportunity left behind by Irving.
While it can still be true that Irving would make more splash plays than the likes of Crawford, Woods, Maliek Collins, and Caraun Reid, this defensive tackle group deserves praise for their ability to step in. Pass rush ability is one thing teams can't have enough of, and the Cowboys are missing some with Irving, finding ways to win thanks to the other traits these defenders bring to the table.
Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard may effectively be the team's defensive coordinator with an emphasis on the back seven, but DC Rod Marinelli's impact is still felt - particularly up front. Regardless of where they're lined up and deployed, the Cowboys front four is expected to be disruptive on every snap, something this scrappy unit excels at.
Prepared once again to play on the edge this season, Crawford is thriving at his original position of 3T-DT. Crawford has two sacks, nine total tackles, and three other hits on the quarterback over the past four weeks. Leading by example with a relentless spirit on every play, Crawford has meant just as much to the Cowboys defensive ends as Irving could.
In a short period of time, the Cowboys have gone from building up Irving thanks to his transcendent ability to make those around him better to simply -- and importantly -- being better across the defense.
Led by DeMarcus Lawrence as their premier rusher, the Cowboys defensive line is a lot for opposing offenses to contain. The "Hot Boyz" work up front has allowed Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to play fast and make plays all over the field.
Maliek Collins, battling back from his second broken foot in three years, is proving again he's a patented Marinelli guy. Collins' play speaks for itself when considering if the Nebraska product is best as a 3T or 1T tackle. Wherever he's asked to play, Collins creates penetration with an explosive first step and can finish at the quarterback with an array of power rush moves.
At 7-5 and fighting for their playoff lives, the Cowboys are done making excuses on the 2018 season. Their strides on defense speak for themselves, and with a group that keeps Dallas in every game they'll play, the door remains open for David Irving to earn snaps again when ready.
The Cowboys don't know any better than their play without Irving right now, and as winners of four straight, it's worth questioning if we'll see Irving over the last three weeks of the regular season.
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