The Dallas Cowboys' defense is set to look entirely different than it did a year ago, with all of the buzz on Rod Marinelli's side of the ball being generated by young and exciting draft picks like Taco Charlton, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, or Marquez White.
The Cowboys' rookie class of 2016 performed so well that the seemingly bold proposition of expecting all these new starters – especially in the secondary – to gel together instantly is warranted. Helping in these young player's transition will be some defensive centerpieces like Sean Lee and Byron Jones.
With LB Sean Lee being a finished product in terms of his development and sustainability, and Byron having also already taken great strides with his game at FS, the question of “who will actually be the Cowboys' most improved defender this season?” is a fascinating one.
My Pick: Defensive Tackle Maliek Collins
Interestingly enough, my decision for this spot came down to two players at the same position – with Maliek Collins beating out veteran and second-year Cowboy Cedric Thornton. Going with a true second-year player reinforces the youth movement for Dallas defensively, and Maliek Collins is set up for a monster season.
Collins emerged as a third round pick to become the Cowboys' starting three technique in 2016, effectively leaving the highly paid Tyrone Crawford without a position. This 3T spot is the focal point of Rod Marinelli's scheme, so finding a younger and more athletic starter there this past season was hardly a negative.
Tyrone Crawford ended up moving to LDE as Collins took hold of the 3T DT spot, a position that I now expect to be filled in 2017 by first-round pick Taco Charlton. This means that the penetrating and rangy athlete in Collins will have even more opportunities to flash playing alongside some rotation of Crawford, Thornton, FA addition Stephen Paea, and eventually David Irving.
All of these tackles should be terrific compliments to Collins, as they'll technically be lining up as the one technique next to Maliek – yet all have the ability to get into the backfield and make plays.
Collins logged more snaps than any of the Cowboys' defensive linemen last season, making up quickly for the time he lost during OTAs and training camp recovering from a broken foot. An injury that was once thought to likely limit Collins' rookie contributions, the Nebraska product translated his college game to the next level with ease.
Beating guards with quickness and power comes easy for Collins, who has taken full advantage of a healthy offseason so far by reportedly continuing to make plays in practice, even against the best guard in football Zack Martin.
When it comes to areas of improvement for Collins in 2017, I'd like to see Maliek transition into his counter moves faster to cleanly beat blockers and chase down plays. The down-the-line efforts from Collins certainly weren't a problem in his rookie campaign, but there were enough snaps where #96 was around the ball but getting stacked up or turned thanks to his initial get off being held inside.
To even be talking about a very technical refinement like this for a second-year defensive linemen that will be entering his first training camp with the Cowboys is an amazing feat, especially considering Maliek Collins' draft status.
The Dallas Cowboys' pass rush may not improve vastly this season, but they certainly have no shortage of athletes at all four positions now, led by a natural and developing 3T DT in Maliek Collins.