There are so many intriguing stories for the Dallas Cowboys heading into training camp this season. With an offense that is expected to remain one of the top scoring teams in the league, most of the question marks fall in the direction of the obscure expectations of the defense. There are a myriad of questions, such as - how healthy/effective will Jaylon Smith be? How is the remodeled secondary going to look? And of course, the standard question that accompanies every new season - who is going to emerge as the team’s leading pass rusher?
Everyone has their favorite defensive lineman. Maybe you are enamored by the shiny new toy that is Taco Charlton? Or could a contract year help motivate DeMarcus Lawrence to where he finally turns a corner and becomes a bona fide edge rushing threat? Maybe you are still intrigued by David Irving who managed four sacks, four forced fumbles, and five deflected passes despite limited reps? Or maybe you are the one person in the club that still believes Tyrone Crawford has more to prove if he can just stay healthy?
Well, these are all fascinating possibilities and it only breaks the surface of the mystery that surrounds the Cowboys defensive line. Because there is one player that nobody seems to be talking much about.
Maliek Collins is the Cowboys' best defensive lineman. There, I said it. I can’t go back now. The second-year player from Nebraska that was selected in the third round of the 2016 draft had a great rookie season. If it wasn’t for the Sportcenter highlight-makers in Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, the young defensive tackle would be commanding a lot more attention as one of the great finds in the draft. At 67th overall, Collins wasn’t some dark-horse sleeper that emerged from nowhere. He had a great college career at Nebraska and with that type of draft pick investment, one would expect him to come in and make an impact. And that is exactly what he did in 2016.
If you look at all the rookies from last year and ranked them by their approximate value (AV explained here), Collins scored a seven, which ties him with six other players for 13th best in the entire draft (both Prescott and Elliott are tied for first with an AV value of 16) and no other defensive tackle finished higher than him. Is that to mean Collins was worthy of a mid first round pick last year? That might be a little bold as you can’t really go off of one year to make a claim like that. But let’s just say, he’s off to a good start.
The Cowboys got great production from him. Collins gave the defense both ability and availability. Despite breaking his foot during the first week of OTA’s last year and missing all of pre-season, Collins made it back in time to play in all 16 regular season games. He logged the most playing time of any of the Cowboys defensive linemen last year with 697 snaps. That speaks to not only his durability, but also to how much the Cowboys coaches believed in him, even as a rookie.
One of the most impressive traits of Collins is his explosive “get off” from the line of scrimmage. We all know this is an important attribute that Rod Marinelli looks for in his defensive linemen. Watch Collins here up the middle as he exhibits great footwork as well as quick hands to blow past the center like he’s standing still (gif’s are from a Youtube breakdown from Law Nation).
Collins' great first step makes him a formidable pass rusher. He had five sacks last year, which is outstanding for a rookie interior defensive lineman. But his quickness doesn’t just make him an asset in the pass rush. Collins’ burst off the snap helped the Cowboys lead the team in rushing defense.
The quickness helps get him started, but he has amazing leg strength that allows him to burst into the backfield.
For years, the Cowboys have struggled getting quality contribution from their interior defensive line. We are just a few years removed from having a red-carpet run defense that allowed 128 yards per game. When you have players like Nick Hayden getting most of the work, the best you can hope for is mediocre. But those days are long gone. Not only is the interior DL not a weakness of the defense, it’s becoming a strength. The ability to close gaps can keep an opponent's running game in check, but it is a huge luxury to get push up the middle. Taking the middle away from the quarterbacks and forcing them to move outside will serve them up for the edge rushers. The Cowboys have had two straight seasons where they’ve made improvements in their sack totals. With the improvement of the interior DL, they are trending up.
Collins is a young kid still developing. In fact, he’s the youngest defensive lineman on the Cowboys team, including all three of the DL draft picks this year. While people can speculate as to who will be the pieces around him, the kid is the one player than won’t be challenged for his playing time. He’ll be on the field plenty in 2017 and he’ll be creating more havoc. And the best part is, this kid is just getting started.