Entering the offseason, the interior of the defensive line had two players that the team could definitely count on. David Irving and Maliek Collins were the two projected starters, and the two have combined for 18.5 sacks over the last two seasons. That is not a stat to ignore.
When healthy (and not suspended), Collins and Irving are one of the better pass rushing defensive tackle duos in the NFL. Both players fit the 3-technique prototype, but also can play the one-technique position if need be. That’s exactly where Maliek Collins found himself for 16 games in 2017, with David Irving getting most of his playing time as the starting 3-technique. In a perfect world, the two would be slated to pick up right where they left off in 2017, but that is not looking like a sure thing here in the third week of OTA’s.
The first domino fell when Maliek Collins suffered a broken foot in voluntary workouts back in May. This is the second time in Collins’ short three-year career that he has broken his foot. The second domino began to fall when David Irving was accused of domestic violence right before the draft back in April. While that does look like it has been cleared up, there has been ongoing issues between David Irving’s ex-girlfriend, the custody over his five-year-old daughter, and earlier today he hinted at some other issues he may possibly be dealing with.
While the outlook of the defensive tackle position may be looking a little bleak with Collins sidelined, and Irving going through various issues, the overall depth of the position should carry the Cowboys if needed.
The first guy who is expected to play a large role with Collins and Irving sidelined is Datone Jones. Jones, a former first-round pick signed with Dallas after being released by the San Francisco 49ers after just three games. In his short tenure with the Cowboys in 2017, Jones was able to see action in seven games (starting two) and registered a sack against Philadelphia in week 17. While you may not be wowed by the stats, Datone Jones was disruptive in the playing time he received in Rod Marinelli’s defense. The 6-foot-5, 288-lb defensive lineman has experience playing both end and tackle, but fits in nicely as a 3-technique in Marinelli’s scheme. Jones does have the size and strength to play the 1-technique if need be, but he can make the biggest difference from the three.
The second guy in the mix for a big role is newly acquired defensive lineman, Jihad Ward. The Cowboys traded Ryan Switzer to the Oakland Raiders for Jihad Ward during the NFL Draft after acquiring Tavon Austin, also via trade. Ward played defensive end and defensive tackle in Oakland’s 4-3 scheme, which is likely a similar role he’ll play here in Dallas. Ward is expected to also play both the 1-technique and the 3-technique, while also likely getting some reps at strong-side defensive end. Ward is also another big body in the interior of the defensive line weighing in at 6-foot-5, 295-lbs. Jihad Ward is a guy both Rod Marinelli and Will McClay fell in love with at the 2016 Reese’s Senior Bowl. Ward is a high-motor guy with some really intriguing traits both physically and athletically. After a slow start to his young career, Ward is looking for a resurgence with the Cowboys, and the Cowboys are hoping he can finally reach his ceiling, which is high.
We will also see guys like: Lewis Neal, Brian Price, Antwaun Woods, and Tyrone Crawford get some reps in training camp and in the preseason. Each of those guys have a unique skill set that can also be productive in a rotational role. But for now, expect Jihad Ward and Datone Jones to get every opportunity to earn more playing time with Collins and Irving on the sideline. By the looks of it, it already seems as if they are both taking advantage of their opportunities so far in OTA’s.
This is what the first-team offense and defense looked like today.
— David Helman (@HelmanDC) June 6, 2018
Even if Maliek Collins and David Irving get back to full strength, and play at the same level we are used to, the Cowboys will still need the depth of the interior defensive line to play at a high level. With the group still working out some wrinkles, the word around town is Datone Jones and Jihad Ward are already turning some heads. That’s great news for a team that rotates their defensive line more than most.