There may be several questions in the air about the Cowboys defense this week, but we’re here to do our best to answer them.
Will Taco produce?
I’m likely the last person anyone wants answering this question, given my hardline stance against the Taco Charlton selection the night he was drafted. But my answer may surprise you in terms of his production.
Charlton will have a solid stat line when the 2017 season comes to a close. Perhaps something like 4.0 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 12 hurries.
He has great size, strong hands, and uses his length well at times. He should be a reliable, league-average pass rusher in 2017. My problem is that I don’t think Charlton will ever be more than that.
Physically, he looks like a lab-created defensive end, but his athleticism caps the excitement of his projection. It’s not even entirely fair to say he’s a high floor, low ceiling player. I think he’s simply what he is, without any sort of floor-ceiling variance at all.
Maliek Collins’ growth
I’m very excited for Maliek Collins in 2017.
It might come as a surprise to Cowboys fans, but Collins actually led all Cowboys’ defensive lineman in snaps played in 2016. His 656 snaps were 32 more than Tyrone Crawford, who had led Cowboys defensive linemen in 2015.
After battling an ankle injury that caused him to miss a large part of training camp, Collins hit his stride in the last month of the season. Collins amassed 3.0 sacks and forced a fumble in the month of December, a time when David Irving and Benson Mayowa were also playing their best football of the year. Even with Irving likely suspended for the first four games of the year, it’s hard not to get excited about the late-season showing of all three and its implications on 2017.
With a full offseason for Collins and the growth of his teammates along the defensive line, he should be able to surpass his 2016 numbers. This would hopefully draw him close to the double-digit threshold that has eluded the Cowboys’ defensive line since Jason Hatcher’s 11 sacks in 2013. Collins probably won’t reach 10, but his large frame, impressive agility, and rapid 2016 growth makes 7-9 sacks a real possibility.
Defense wins championships
Let’s tackle part two of that question first: how good does the defense need to be in 2017?
It may sound like a cop-out, but good enough that converting 3rd and 20 at the end of the 4th quarter isn’t a reality for Green Bay or anyone else. Good enough that putting up 31 points means you’re not in a position where Aaron Rodgers or elite quarterback X can still beat you on the game’s final drive. If the offense does what its capable of doing, then the defense simply needs to be good. I won’t say average, because I don’t think you’re beating Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers with average, but just being a good, solid defense should be enough for this team to seriously contend for a Super Bowl.
Now for part one: how good can the defense be? The ceiling is very high, if not completely likely.
Anthony Brown, Orlando Scandrick, and Byron Jones are all strong players in the secondary. Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods all legitimately have a chance to be better than the aforementioned veterans. If linebacker Jaylon Smith returns to his pre-injury form, he is potentially a better player than his all-pro teammate Sean Lee. We just detailed above how Collins, Irving, and Mayowa clicked together in December and have the chance to play even better.
Now will all of those “if’s” and “maybe’s” fall into place? Probably not. But the potential is there.
It’s still likely that one of Awuzie, Lewis, or Woods will end up disappointing. Scandrick is aging rapidly, and we’ll likely see a lesser version of him in 2017. Smith will be playing with his AFO brace, and likely operating at 75% (or worse) of his ceiling. And the Island of Misfit Toys that is known as the Cowboys defensive line will probably experience some sort of return to normalcy from December’s output.
But even accounting for some of those variables, the Cowboys have a legitimate chance to be a top 12 defense in the NFL. That’s all they really need.