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Cowboys Get A Glimpse Of Three Defensive Newcomers

After missing the first two preseason games the Cowboys welcomed back three key pieces to the defense.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Rookie Minicamp Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday night we got a first glimpse of three newcomers to the defense in rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins, free agent defensive end Benson Mayowa, and a once-again Cowboy, linebacker Justin Durant. Each of these three were held out of the first two preseason games for various reasons. Collins and Mayowa both underwent surgery during OTA’s that kept them out for most of training camp. Durant, who signed with the team only about a month ago, has taken part in training camp but not the preseason games because the team wanted to allow him to work himself into shape after not taking part in the rest of the offseason. While each of the three newcomers only played about a quarter and had relatively nondescript performances, there are plenty of items of interest if you read between the lines.

Justin Durant

Durant played every snap of the first quarter and was replaced by Anthony Hitchens on the very first play of the second quarter despite it being a third down and short in the red zone. The plan for him was to play exactly one quarter and no more.

Most interesting is that Durant immediately stepped in at the Mike with the starting defense, a spot that had been previously occupied by Anthony Hitchens. Surprisingly, Hitchens did not shift to the Sam and instead Kyle Wilber manned that spot, sending Hitchens to the bench. I think most fans expected that were Durant able to work himself into the starting lineup, whether in the middle or on the strongside, it would be to replace Wilber, not Hitchens. This is a very interesting development and indicates that the coaching staff has more trust in Wilber than most might expect. Further, when the defense went into the nickel Durant remained on the field next to Sean Lee.

When Durant exited the game he was replaced by Hitchens, who stepped in at the Mike in base formations and in the nickel. This could indicate that Lee and Durant are the coaching staff’s first choice “three down” LB’s, with Hitchens rotating in to provide a breather. Or, it might have just been a case of the coaches wanting to get an extended look at Durant against Seattle’s top unit.

Maliek Collins

Like Durant, Collins also played every snap of the first quarter and was replaced on the very first snap of the second quarter. Most interesting about this is that Collins started at the 3-technique next to Terrell McClain and was not rotated out for the entire quarter. This demonstrates a surprising level of trust on the part of the coaching staff when you consider that Collins missed the majority of the offseason and training camp, and that Jack Crawford has shown to be a very capable back-up at the position. Perhaps this is a by-product of the staff knowing that Crawford will likely have to play heavy snaps at defensive end while Lawrence is suspended, but at this early stage in his development it is an encouraging sign nonetheless.

As for his play on the field, Collins was washed out of plays at times when taking on double-teams and did not produce any stand out plays in limited snaps, but he did flash the primary trait he was known for coming out of college, his upfield quickness. Specifically on one play towards the end of the first quarter where Collins attacked the outside shoulder of the left guard, allowing Benson Mayowa to loop inside for a quick pressure on a tackle-end stunt. Russell Wilson got the ball out quick, but had he been forced to hold it for an extra second it could have easily resulted in a sack.

Benson Mayowa

Mayowa played almost the entire first quarter, although he was replaced by Ryan Russell a play earlier than Collins and Durant. He played every snap at right defensive end and I’m guessing that this is the spot we will see him at for the vast majority of the season. He actually flashed more than either Collins or Durant with a nice hustle play down the line on the first Seahawks play of the game, to go with two pressures on the Seahawks second drive. The first came when he did a nice job working through a double-team against the left tackle who had help from a chipping back, and the second came on the previously mentioned tackle-end stunt with Collins.

When you consider that Lawrence has said that he’s more comfortable on the left side, and that he played the vast majority of the dress rehearsal at that spot, Mayowa is likely the starter on the right side even when Lawrence returns from suspension. The only way around it would be if someone else steps up or the team is able to acquire a significant upgrade during roster cut downs over the next two weeks. The only other contenders to start at defensive end currently on the roster are guys like Jack Crawford and David Irving, who are both arguably better inside, and an uninspiring Ryan Russell.

With that said, it was good to see these three on the field for the first time, and it was even better to see them get out of it healthy. When the games start to count in a couple of weeks all three will play significant roles, likely a starting role in Mayowa’s case, possibly a starting role in Durant’s case, so it was important to see them get some work in an actual game before the preseason is complete.