The Cowboys don’t often invest premium draft picks in the interior of their defensive line - they haven’t drafted one in the first round since 1991 - but instead attempt to find impact players on Day 2 or 3. Names like Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Tyrone Crawford, David Irving, and Maliek Collins have proven that formula right in recent years, and the Cowboys are hoping Osa Odighizuwa can be the next.
Dallas selected Odighizuwa with the first of their three third-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. Weighing in around 280 pounds, Odighizuwa’s frame suggested a bit of a tweener on the defensive line, and while in college at UCLA he played a variety of roles. But Dan Quinn quickly clarified after the draft that he wanted Odighizuwa to be an interior pass rusher, primarily a 3-technique, for the Cowboys.
Quinn also mentioned that he wanted to make little use of Odighizuwa, saving him for pass rushing situations above all else, but injuries elsewhere on defense led to the former Bruin leading all interior defenders on the team in snaps taken in 2021. The result was a promising rookie campaign that ultimately fizzled out towards the end, but what can we expect from Odighizuwa in Year 2?
What He’s Done
With the exception of Micah Parsons, Odighizuwa was the most productive rookie for the Cowboys in 2021. A big part of this was due to his seeing an increased workload when Neville Gallimore got hurt in training camp; that workload remained steady when Brent Urban’s season ended about halfway through the year.
Despite Quinn’s initial plan to limit his snaps in his rookie year, Odighizuwa responded well with the increased role. He ended up leading all Dallas interior defensive linemen in sacks, pressures, hurries, QB knockdowns, and tackles for loss. In addition, Odighizuwa was second among all rookie interior defensive linemen in both pressures and stops, proving his value against both the run and pass.
I expect Osa Odighizuwa will have a big Year 2 after a pretty impressive rookie year, where he finished 2nd in total pressures & stops among rookie IDL. Extremely quick, mobile & has powerful hands. Further refinement will pay big dividends. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/QCGhC7x11m— John Owning (@JohnOwning) June 10, 2022
To further hammer home the point, Odighizuwa recorded a pressure rate of 9.1%, which came in just behind Saints star Cameron Jordan and just ahead of Titans standout Jeffery Simmons. All of this came while Quinn frequently deployed Odighizuwa in a wide variety of alignments, a stark departure from the narrow role the coordinator had originally envisioned for him.
What He Can Do
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Odighizuwa's rookie year was a success, but there is still room for improvement. The biggest (and perhaps only) knock on him this past year was the way Odighizuwa’s production faded towards the end of the year.
Much of this was due to his inability to stay on the field as much. Through the first eight games of the season, Odighizuwa was averaging nearly 63% of all defensive snaps, but that average dropped to 51% over his final eight games. While Gallimore returned to the field in Week 14 and deservedly took some snaps away from Odighizuwa, the rookie’s decline had begun prior to that.
The important thing to remember, though, is that Odighizuwa was just a rookie and, as such, was facing tougher competition in a more rugged schedule than he ever did in college. Conditioning was also one area for improvement that many cited when Odighizuwa was in the draft, so it’s not at all surprising to see that he struggled to keep up as the year went on.
Now, Odighizuwa will have had a full offseason with the team and their offseason training program. He’ll have time to get his conditioning more in line with what NFL athletes need, and he’s already apparently bulked up:
Saw him in the locker room yesterday. The dude is absolutely jacked. McCarthy has been talking about his offseason gains, and it is very real.— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) June 11, 2022
Then there’s the hope that Gallimore will play a full season, along with the addition of rookie John Ridgeway, which should mean Odighizuwa doesn’t have to play as often. If Dallas can keep him fresh for the opportunities where his pass rushing skills can shine the most, he could have a big jump in his second year.
The Cowboys will need him to do just that, too, as their pass rush is likely to experience some regression with the departure of Randy Gregory. In general, Dallas didn’t get much of an interior pass rush last year when they weren’t blitzing Parsons up the middle, hence why a rookie who faded down the stretch led his position group in nearly every metric.
Odighizuwa has all the traits to become a deadly interior pass rushing presence. If he can improve his stamina, technique, and carve out a bit more of a specialized role on defense, Odighizuwa could provide a huge spark to this defense. Out of all of the Cowboys’ rookies from 2021, Odighizuwa figures to have the best chance of experiencing a significant second-year jump.