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    Who Will Be Cowboys Most Improved Defender in 2017?

    The ' is set to look entirely different than it did a year ago, with all of the buzz on 's side of the ball being generated by young and exciting draft picks like , , , , or .

    The Cowboys' rookie class of 2016 performed so well that the seemingly bold proposition of expecting all these new starters – especially in the – to gel together instantly is warranted. Helping in these young player's transition will be some defensive centerpieces like and .

    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

    Maliek Collins, Redskins
    DT Maliek Collins (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

    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 . 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 pick to become the Cowboys' starting three technique in 2016, effectively leaving the highly paid 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 , and eventually .

    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 and recovering from a broken foot. An 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 so far by reportedly continuing to make plays in practice, even against the best in football .

    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.

    Who Will Be Cowboys Most Improved Defender in 2017? 1
    (Paul Spinelli via AP)

    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' 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.

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    Sean Martin
    Sean Martinhttp://wmscradio.com/show/upon-further-review/
    Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

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    Dustin Harweger

    I’ve got to go with the g.o.a.t Jeff Heath. He should finally get his chance to start and fully show his ability. Even tho his snaps will be fewer than Maliek or even Byron (due to heaths ST snaps) I believe he will show he belongs and develop into a playmaker and star for this Defense. I can’t wait!

    Sean Martin

    This is a really good pick actually, Dustin. Like you, I am fully expecting Heath to take a big step up and not only earn the snaps he deserves but make the most of them by helping this entire secondary make more plays on the ball. Going to be a lot of fun, thanks for reading!

    (If you’re interested, I wrote more on Heath as well right here: https://insidethestar.com/cowboys-properly-evaluate-jeff-heath-offseason/)

    John Williams

    I agree with you Sean. Maliek will be the force we’ve been looking for in the middle since the witch to the 4-3.

    My honorable mention is Anthony Brown. His 2016 has me psyched for 2017.

    Sean Martin

    I legitimately think Brown doesn’t have many areas that he needs to improve on, he’ll only need to repeat his 2016 performance to do his job. Which is why I went with Collins. Love the honorable mention though.

    John Williams

    Yeah, I agree with Collins, but also think he showed a ton in the second half of 2016. He even has me interested in seeing him and Crawford line up next to each other on passing downs to get the best out of their best 3-techs.