Jaylon Smith! Taco Charlton! Chidobe Awuzie! Jourdan Lewis!
Every offseason hope springs eternal as fans and media alike fawn over incoming free agents and recent draft picks as the primary source of improvement as their team heads into a new season. It’s natural to be fascinated with the shiny new toy whose YouTube highlights you’ve spent hours poring over leading up to the draft and then again during the dog days of June and July.
Of course for the Dallas Cowboys the need to improve has been laser focused on the defense lately, and as we head towards training camp there is no shortage of talented, intriguing new faces on that side of the ball. When the preseason starts in just under a month all eyes will be focused on Smith and the rookies in search of signs that foreshadow the desired improvement defensively.
But the problem with all of this is that often times rookies are usually an investment in the future while only providing a marginal boost in their first year. The rare and historic success of the Cowboys 2016 rookie class is the exception, not the norm, and usually it takes rookies at least a month or two, if not a full season before they really start making an impact on the field. Often times improvement from one season to the next primarily comes from the development of second- and third-year players who have had the luxury of playing in the same system with the same coaches for a year or two.
So all of this brings me to the player who I believe will be the most critical as far as taking the Cowboys defense to the next level, and that’s defensive tackle Maliek Collins. The second-year man out of Nebraska has flown somewhat under the radar this offseason while most of the headlines have gone to the rookies in the secondary, the first-round pick at defensive end, and of course Jaylon Smith.
While all of those players certainly bring exciting potential to the defense, it seems that many are overlooking the fact that the Cowboys could have a potential superstar on the defensive line on their hands for the first time in years. Despite missing nearly the entire offseason program, as well as the majority of training camp with a broken foot, Collins led all Cowboys defensive linemen in snaps played in 2016. On top of that he finished the season second on the team with five sacks, a very impressive number for an interior lineman, with all five coming in the last nine games of the season. This implies that it took Collins time to acclimate to the league and recover from the injury, but when he did, he averaged a sack just about every other game.
After his sophomore season at Nebraska where Collins put up 13 TFL and 4.5 sacks he was considered a potential first-round pick going into the 2015 season. The Huskers changed their defensive scheme going into his junior season and Collins suffered, amassing only 7 TFL and 2.5 sacks. That didn’t stop Rod Marinelli from identifying Collins, with his low center of gravity, active hands, and burst off the snap, as an ideal fit to play the 3-technique position, the motor of Marinelli’s entire scheme. That belief and talent evaluation has clearly paid off as Collins projects to be the most important piece of the Cowboys defensive line going into 2017.
Geno Atkins, a very similar player playing a very similar role in a very similar scheme to Collins, improved from three sacks to 7.5 from his rookie year to his second season, and was named Second Team All-Pro. If Collins can follow a similar career arc in 2017 he will have significantly more impact than almost anything that Smith, Charlton, Awuzie, or Lewis can do, at least individually.
If Collins continues to thrive in the role that he was hand-picked to play, and is able to develop into a Pro Bowl/All-Pro type of player as his rookie season suggests he could, the Cowboys will finally have a force at the line of scrimmage that you can build around, a force that has been lacking for about five years. Combine that with All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee and the Cowboys front seven will have a foundation that other, lesser players can feed off of. When you have an All Pro or Pro Bowler at a particular position suddenly the accompanying role players at those positions start to look better.
Guys like Anthony Hitchens are borderline starting-caliber players, but when flanked by Sean Lee they start to look like valuable pieces to a quality defense. If Collins is able to grow to that level of player the same will be said for the Cedric Thornton’s and Stephen Paea’s of the world. Suddenly the role players will start to look better and better as more focus is given to Collins by opposing offensive lines, and the effects of that will ripple down through the defensive line depth chart, both on the interior as well as on the edge.
So while this training camp and preseason will be all about guys like Smith and Charlton and Awuzie just keep in mind that there is a potential star in the making lurking just under the radar, and while you may not hear much adulation coming from the media over the next few months, he may be the real key to the Cowboys defense.