What a difference a year makes in the NFL. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys trotted out Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, Christian Covington, and Trysten Hill at the defensive tackle spots with a bit of Kerry Hyder and Michael Bennett slipping down inside. Today only Woods and Hill remain on the Cowboys roster, and even Woods was an unknown until he signed his tender on July 28. In 2020, big-name free agents Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe lead the group of Dallas Cowboys interior defensive linemen in 2020. But even though the names changed, will their performance improve in 2020?
New look interior defensive line provides hope in 2020
Jim Tomsula vs Rod Marinelli
Marinelli is one of the best defensive line coaches in NFL, and throughout seven seasons in Dallas, the Cowboys front office hasn’t provided him with nearly enough talent for long-term success. In 2019, Marinelli did a great job with the players that he had, but things became stale at the position.
Tomsula is widely considered as one of the best defensive line coaches in the NFL. Most recently he was a member of the Washington Football Team staff where he helped develop Daron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and more impressively Matt Ioannidis. Washington, despite all of their flaws, has boasted one of the toughest defensive lines in the NFL over the past few seasons. That reputation follows Tomsula back to his time in San Francisco as well, as Dallas Morning News Cowboys Analyst John Owning wrote.
“While in San Francisco (2007-15), Tomsula deserved a ton of credit for helping turn Justin Smith into one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the game. Before he joined the 49ers in 2008, Smith had yet to be voted to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team. In his seven seasons with Tomsula, Smith was voted to five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro first teams. Smith even called Tomsula “the best D-line coach in the NFL.”
The biggest difference between the two is their deployment of defensive linemen. Marinelli’s defense reflected more of the old Miami 4-3 that featured defensive lineman attacking single gaps in an effort to provide disruption in the backfield. Meanwhile, Tomsula deploys a heavy two-gap deployment from the defensive front, plus a hybrid of two and one gap techniques. This takes pressure off of the linebackers, who were often put in difficult spots in 2019, due to defensive tackles consistently losing their gap integrity. Tomsula traditionally deploys a 3-4 scheme in his base package, but with all of the various fronts that he utilizes, it’s simple enough to replace his version of the WILL linebacker with a traditional defensive end.
Gerald McCoy vs Maliek Collins will be a key position battle to watch
Maliek Collins has consistently been a good pass-rushing interior player. Last season, he took a portion of the blame for the lack of pop that the defense had against the run, but had a very high win rate as a pass rusher, even if getting home didn’t happen at a more consistent rate. The issue, especially last season, was the propensity to get washed out of his gap by trying to attack the offensive linemen’s shoulder in pass rush sets.
McCoy might not have the explosiveness as a pass rusher that Collins has at this point, but he brings a more well-rounded game to the defense. As he’s aged, he’s relied more on improvements with his hands and base rather than his supreme athleticism. McCoy’s still athletic enough to be a menace against stretch concepts, not allowing blockers to cross face and using his length to disengage and chase.
McCoy will be a marked improvement against double teams in comparison to Collins. What might be the most important part of McCoy’s signing is the leadership, and hopeful mentorship he’ll provide to Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill.
Dontari Poe and Antwaun Woods vs Antwaun Woods and Christian Covington
With the addition of Mike Nolan as the defensive coordinator, it’s apparent that things were bound to change. That change came with the addition of Dontari Poe, a massive interior player. The 6-foot-4, 346-pound defender isn’t a normal space-eater, as both he and McCoy are former first-round picks, and for good reason. At his size, he managed to run under a five-second 40-yard dash and put up 44 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press.
So, in summation, for a big man, he can run. Poe can hold up against the run with a solid anchor, but as mentioned, he isn’t a player who will eat up space. Poe has the ability to get the job done as a pass rusher as well, with 20.5 sacks in eight seasons. He won’t consistently be on the field on third down but can collapse a pocket when he is on the field on traditional passing reps.
Christian Covington was a fine player who provided okay depth for the Cowboys defense, but his 305-pound frame didn’t really entice the defensive staff, who was looking for more bulk for their 0 or 1-techniques. Covington has since departed to the Denver Broncos. In 2020, the Cowboys will find themselves facing more double teams in a multiple front defensive scheme and will have to find a way to hold up against them.
Antwaun Woods burst onto the scene in 2018 after being signed off of the Tennessee Titans practice squad. The 320-pound interior 1-technique is more of a slasher than a true space eater, but he’s more than adequate as a rotational piece that can bring some juice coming off of the bench when Poe needs a breather.
What to expect from rookie Neville Gallimore
The Oklahoma Sooner formerly known as “Canadian Bacon” by Sooner fans is a very explosive player that is still working through a body change. Earlier in his OU career, he was nearing 330 pounds. In his final season, he had slimmed down to around 300 pounds, and it hurt his ability to anchor against the run. Gallimore lacked functional strength, and as the focus on him grew by opposing Big-12 offensive lines, where he faced consistent double teams, he struggled further.
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In his first season, a realistic expectation is similar to that of Collins during his rookie season. He’s a player who can play as a situational pass rusher from multiple spots or can play as an undertackle or 4-technique in spurts. If Gallimore learns to reduce his surface area while keeping his hands active, he will be much more effective on a consistent basis while pass rushing.
Does Trysten Hill make the team?
This is one of the more fascinating storylines of training camp. With a shift in philosophy and the departure of Hill’s biggest fan in Marinelli, there is a realistic path to catching the scissors for Hill. It will likely come down to whether or not the Cowboys keep five or six edge defenders. In many ways, he and Gallimore are similar players. Both have eye-popping first steps and subsequent explosion, but his inconsistencies hinder his ability to get on the field and succeed once on it.
Hopefully, after a year with Marinelli and taking part in an offseason program with Tomsula, he’ll be able to become a pleasant surprise as the team’s fifth lineman. Hill will likely make the team, and the Cowboys may demonstrate that it’s okay not to give up on a 22-year-old second-round pick after just one season.