How one rookie could tie the Cowboys’ defensive line together

How One Rookie Could Tie The Cowboys' Defensive Line Together

How one rookie could tie the ' defensive line together

The impact of one rookie on the ' defensive line

By Doug Farrar on 2024-07-08 05:01:38

How One Rookie Could Tie The Cowboys' Defensive Line Together

The Dallas have perhaps the NFL's most incendiary pass-rusher in Micah Parsons. That much, we know. What we don't know at this point is what the rest of that Dallas pass rush will look like in 2024 and beyond, and that uncertainty has multiple sources.

First, there's the switch in defensive coordinators from Dan Quinn to Mike Zimmer. Zimmer is a familiar face to longtime Cowboys fans of course; he was the team's DC from 2000 through 2006, and his return to the team is an interesting wrinkle.

Then, there's the talent around Parsons. Last season, Parsons led the team with 16 sacks and 106 total pressures. Behind that, there are veterans who still have some juice, like Demarcus Lawrence and his four sacks and 48 total pressures in 2023, and newer ascending players like Osa Odighizuwa and his three sacks and 44 total pressures in 2023.

Then, there's Western Michigan rookie Marshawn Kneeland, one of the most disruptive defenders in this draft class. Dallas took Kneeland with the 56th overall pick in the second round after Kneeland totaled six sacks and 37 pressures in just 288 pass-rushing snaps for the Broncos in 2023. After a Senior Bowl week in which he proved to be just as dominant, Kneeland saw his profile moving up to match his tape.

“The number one thing about him is the high effort and motor that he plays with,” Cowboys Vice of Player Personnel Will McClay said of Kneeland. “Then to be talented, physically talented enough to play at this level. We noticed him early on. [Brett] Maxie is the area scout who brought him to our attention early, and the more you watch him, the more you see NFL traits and the traits that we are looking for on the defensive side; playing hard all the time and having the ability to rush the passer outside and inside. We've talked about it before, as hard as DLaw [DeMarcus Lawrence] played at Boise State, there are some similarities there. That is what we thought about him.”

So, how will Kneeland fit into Zimmer's defense, as different as it will be? Quinn was a big believer in heavy stunts and a lot of big nickel (three-safety) defenses, while Zimmer, at least through his last stop as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach through 2021, was more about a 4-2-5 nickel base defense, some interesting looks in three-linebacker sets, and not quite as much stunting and gaming at the line of scrimmage.

One way Zimmer uses his linebackers is to mug them up on either side of the center, and blitz through the middle. That was the case throughout his career, and with Parsons and now Kneeland on his defense, Zimmer could really muck opposing passing games up something fierce.

Zimmer also has a knack for using gap-versatile players to their best advantages. Back with the Vikings, he had pass-rusher D.J. Wonnum, selected in the fourth round of the 2020 draft out of South Carolina. Like Kneeland, Wonnum is a hybrid-built player (6-foot-5, 258 pounds) who could win from more than one alignment, and had all kinds of ways of getting it done. In 2021, Zimmer's last season, Wonnum had a career-high 42 total pressures, and when you look at the two players and their primary attributes, it's easy to make the connection, giving us some idea of how Kneeland might be deployed.

It's entirely possible that Zimmer learned and will employ new concepts in his return to the NFL — it's common for coaches to do that after sabbaticals, whether voluntary or not. But it's nice for the coach to have a new guy who fits the concepts he's already known for so well.

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