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3 prospects at defensive tackle that could end an over 30-year Cowboys draft trend

The Cowboys just don’t draft defensive tackles in the first round, but these guys may break the trend.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

From the franchise’s second season in 1961 through the 1988 season, the Cowboys either had Bob Lilly or Randy White on the defensive side of the ball where they both made their mark at the defensive tackle position. Talk about an embarrassment of riches for nearly three decades. Both Lilly and White arguably have gone down as two of the greatest to ever play the position in the NFL. The 1990’s Cowboys, primarily during their three Super Bowls in four seasons had a great tandem along the interior of the defensive line that featured guys like Tony Casillas, Leon Lett, and Russell Maryland.

Speaking of Russell Maryland, his draft year of 1991 was the last time Dallas took a defensive tackle in the first round of the NFL Draft. Interestingly enough, the franchise took not one but two defensive tackles in the first round that year. You can thank “The Great Train Robbery” Hershel Walker trade just over 18 months prior for this. Maryland was drafted first overall by the team due to the ammunition gained from the Walker deal. Later on in the round at pick 21, Kelvin Pritchett was the other defensive tackle drafted by America’s Team. The latter never played a down for the team as he was flipped to the Detroit Lions for multiple picks shortly after the Cowboys drafted him.

Since the last time Dallas was in a Super Bowl, there really hasn’t been a dynamic duo along the interior to give the opposing offensive line trouble. The team did have La’Roi Glover for four seasons, but did not pair him up with another high-level player. In Glover’s last season with the Cowboys in 2005, the defensive scheme would switch to a 3-4 alignment. For the next eight seasons in this alignment, there would be another force along the interior by the name of Jay Ratliff. Just like Glover before him, it was Ratliff and Ratliff alone to give the opposing offensive line fits along the interior. Ratliff, in many people’s eyes, is easily on the list of the greatest defensive tackles in franchise history. It sure would’ve been nice to have a dynamic tandem of talented defensive tackles to play along side the likes of Glover and Ratliff. Hindsight in this matter of course is 20/20.

In recent years, there have been flashes of good play along the interior but nothing sustainable at a high level. Adding a high level prospect at this position would be a good play going forward.

Here are three prospects that the team could draft at 26 to keep an eye for the 2023 NFL Draft

Calijah Kancey

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Pitt at Virginia Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As a member of the 2019 recruiting class, Calijah Kancey joined the Pittsburgh Panthers and would redshirt his true freshman season. During the 2020 season and in his redshirt freshman season, he would appear in 11 games and would record 1.5 sacks. The following two years as a Panther, he would total 14.5 sacks and 27.5 total tackles for loss. What those numbers will show is that Kancey is quick and explosive off the snap.

His pass rush moves are already at an NFL level and shouldn’t require much attention. From the onset, he can be used as a pass rusher on both the inside and outside and be quite effective at it. Recently at the NFL combine, he ran at 4.67 40-yard dash, which for someone his size makes him an athletic freak. This type of speed shows up on the hustle plays where he typically finds himself in the action by the end of each play.

The draw back with Kancey is that he lacks normal size for the defensive tackle position. His lack of prototypical size along the interior can make it tough for him as a run defender. It also isn’t ideal that he loses gap discipline more often than he should. If the team wants another pass rushing force along the interior, then Kancey is your guy assuming he is available. If the team wants someone with more size and is better against the run, then leaving his name off the card might be the way to go. Nevertheless, there is plenty of talent and potential for him to be a very good player in the NFL, but he will need some work on run defense if he expects to be on the field the majority of the time.

Bryan Bresee

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Syracuse at Clemson Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Coming out of high school as a member of the 2020 class, there literally wasn’t a single player rated higher than Bryan Breese prior to joining the college ranks. Being as highly touted as he was, most thought that the NFL would be his next stop after a few years with the Clemson Tigers. Those assumptions are heading in that exact direction in the coming days. How Bresee got to this point wasn’t exactly how he had drew it up. He tore his ACL in 2021 and missed nine games. The following year, he missed time due to a kidney infection and also the loss of his younger sister to brain cancer.

Even with all of this adversity, when Bresee was on the field he was a good player for the Tigers. His career stat line of nine sacks, 15 tackles for loss, and 51 total tackles during his three years in Death Valley is nothing to write home about, but the talent has always been there. Physically, he possesses tremendous power and agility for a person of his size. His leverage along with his power forces opposing offensive lines to attempt to double team him. Even when opponents double team him, he still gets to the ball carrier and is a force against the ground attack.

As a pass rusher, he doesn’t have an array of moves to get to the quarterback but if he is able to time the snap well and bend, he is an effective pass rusher. Ideally, he needs to add weight to his frame as he will be on the smaller side at defensive tackle in the pro game. Bresee has plenty of tools in his tool box to be a very good professional football player, and just needs to be on the field much more often. He is decent enough to play both the run and pass game, but will need to continue to work on his all around game if he wants to stick in the league for a long time.

Mazi Smith

COLLEGE FOOTBALL NOV 19 Illinois at Michigan Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Mazi Smith was part of the 2019 recruiting class. He had offers from Penn State and Alabama before deciding to stay in his home state to play for the Michigan Wolverines. For the first two seasons in Ann Arbor, Smith rarely saw the field and appeared in just six games total during this time. His final two seasons on campus would see him play in 27 games. During those 27 appearances, he would total 85 tackles. He would add just a half sack to his college career, but that is because he is a run-stuffing specialist.

Due to his enormous size, he plays the run stopping role quite well. For being a well over 300 pound player, he is a very good athlete that possesses good agility and strength. As big as he is, he has plenty of size to play along the interior of the defensive line in the NFL.

On the flip side, he has very limited ability as a pass rusher. In this area he seems to be out of his element, especially when his initial rush doesn’t lead to a lot of pressure in the quarterback’s face. Smith’s size and athleticism are an intriguing combination that many teams are looking for. The Cowboys do need help in the inside of the defensive line, particularly against the run. Smith fits this need quite well, and would be a welcome addition to the franchise. Expectations for him right out the gate to play on passing downs need to be tempered because at this stage in his development, he is primarily a run stopper with very little to offer from a pass-rushing perspective.

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