When it is all said and done, the 2016 draft of the Dallas Cowboys could go down as one of the best hauls in team history. People remember the great starts of Dak Prescott who won Rookie of the Year, and Ezekiel Elliott who earned All-Pro status right out of the gate. And with a healthy Jaylon Smith flashing signs of greatness at camp, this draft class just keeps getting better. While those three are great, it’s easy to overlook another nice grab in the draft in third-round pick Maliek Collins.
After a strong rookie season where Collins had five sacks, the team appeared to have a new 3-tech defensive tackle. However, he was shifted over to the 1-tech spot last year to accommodate another up-and-come interior rusher - David Irving. Collins wasn’t able to repeat his rookie success as he only had 2.5 sacks last year, but the reasons are unclear. Was it due to his position change or could it be a result of a lingering foot injury he had throughout the year? Entering the 2018 season, Collins appears to be in line for another season at the 1-tech spot, however there are a lot of different factors that could eventually change things up. So we ask - where should Collins play in the trenches, or better yet - what arrangement gives the Cowboys defensive line the best chance to succeed.
The case for him playing the 1-tech position
Maximize the talent of David Irving
While you can look at Collins’ decline in sacks from 5 to 2.5 when moving over to the 1-tech position as a bad thing, the tandem collectively actually improved. Collins (5.0) plus Terrell McClain (2.5) in 2016 equaled seven sacks from this duo, but when you look at Collins (2.5) plus David Irving (7.0), the sack total increased to 9.5 and that’s not even taking into account that Irving missed half the season due to a suspension and injury.
When Irving is on the field, he’s an absolute beast so finding an arrangement where he can get reps is important. While Irving himself has position flex and has spent some time out on the edge, his best role right now is at the 3-tech spot. That means for this duo to play together, Collins has to man the 1-tech spot. It may not be the best thing for Collins, but is it the best thing for the defensive line as a unit?
Allow backups to play to their strength
Irving isn’t the only defensive tackle who does his best work at the 3-tech position. The team also has Datone Jones and Jihad Ward on the team who have gotten extra opportunities due to Irving’s absence. Jones, a former first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, has logged snaps with the first team defense. He has looked good and may end up earning a starting spot when the season begins. Ward, who was acquired when they traded Ryan Switzer to Oakland, is a former second-round pick and has been play well too. Both these guys could be in the defensive tackle rotation and the 3-tech position is where they are most likely to play so keeping Collins at the 1 makes that possible.
Maybe he’s good at it
Despite never missing a single game, Collins has had some bad luck with foot injuries. He broke his right foot in OTA’s his rookie season and then played through a stress reaction in his left foot last year that required him to get surgery in January. He would have surgery again in May to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in that same left foot. Clearly, that left foot has given him problems.
While he had a down year last season, it’s very possible that his foot injury had more to do with that than the position change. If Collins’ foot can get back to 100%, who knows how well he can perform at the 1-tech spot. Maybe we’ll see him flourish there just as he did at the 3-tech in 2016?
The case for him playing the 3-tech position
The uncertainty of David Irving
There is no denying that the Cowboys defensive line is much better when Irving is on the field. Unfortunately, keeping him on the field has become quite the task. For the second-straight year, Irving will miss the first four games of the season while serving a drug suspension. Not only that, but he has some personal issues going on and he’s nowhere to be found at camp right now. The saga of David Irving is ongoing and we really can’t bank on him being there when they need him.
The Cowboys slapped a second-round tender on Irving and that gives us an idea of how they feel about him. This could very well be his last season in Dallas. If Irving is out of the picture, Collins could slide back into his 3-tech spot. Is this what the Cowboys would do? It’s tough to say as once again, the team would look for the most effective duo to man the middle. Which brings me to...
The emergence of Antwaun Woods
The Cowboys have used the draft to address just about every position on the roster, however, when it comes to nose tackle - they get skimpy. Typically, the team resorts to free agency to fill this void. Players like Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, and Stephen Paea are 1-tech defensive tackles the team has signed in recent years. While McClain gave the Cowboys one year of quality service, the team has been left out in the cold at the 1-tech. The team liked what the saw in Brian Price to where they claimed him off of waivers after being released by the Green Bay Packers. Price has been okay, but is he the answer at the 1-tech position?
To the surprise of many, it is another 2016 undrafted free agent that is turning heads in training camp. Antwaun Woods spent the last two seasons on the Tennessee Titans practice squad, where he was only called up for one game in that span. The Titans released Woods this offseason and the Cowboys decided to give him a shot. Woods has played really well in camp and gets a lot of push in the middle. He’s currently running with the first team and right now appears to be the team’s starting 1-tech DT if Collins is not healthy and slotted there. It could be interesting to see Woods and Collins on the field together as this duo could be rather effective inside.
Maximize his ability
Rather than adjusting to accommodate Irving, the team could opt to just play Collins where he is most effective. If Collins is fierce at the 3-tech, the better solution may just be to find the right 1-tech to complement him. Maybe he’s on the roster, maybe he’s not, but the team has squandered too many years playing guys at the wrong spots and they need to put their players in the best position they can to succeed.
The Cowboys have an assortment of players at defensive tackle and they can go a lot of different ways. Collins going back to where he excelled his rookie season is not out of the question and could get the most out of his skills.
Irving is the real wild card here. If he was more dependable and going to be around for the long haul, then it would be worth trying to make the 1-tech position Collins’ new home. But something just isn’t right with Irving and it’s hard to see him being a part of the team’s future. With some of the new guys like Woods, Jones, Ward, and Price - the Cowboys should be able to find someone who can help out at the 1-tech spot so Collins can do what he does best at the 3-tech.
Where do you think Collins should play in 2018?