Spagnola: Defense Banking On A Double-Play Bundle Of Joy This Time Around

IRVING, Texas – For the very first time since the 1968 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys have selected a player from the University of Nebraska and the University of Oklahoma in the same year.

         The Cornhusker would be third-round pick Maliek Collins. The Sooner would be fourth-round pick Charles Tapper. The two have a lot in common.

         Both are defensive linemen, Collins a tackle and Tapper an end.

         Both come from metropolitan areas, Collins attending Kansas City Center High School and Tapper Baltimore's City College Magnet School.

         Both had fathers pass away by the age of 6, meaning their mothers carved a disciplined and successful path leading them to their current stage in life.

         Both played more than just football in high school, Collins a Missouri state champion wrestler, going 48-0 in his senior year after a 48-5 junior season that saw him advance to the state quarterfinals; Tapper a basketball player, good enough to make one of those AAU teams. He only began playing football after his mom told him before his junior year, either play football or get a job. He played football, and didn't get cut as he expected.

         Both were somewhat miscast in their respective defensive schemes this past season in college, Collins playing more of a nose tackle at Nebraska, having to two-gap most of the time, unlike his sophomore season playing in a scheme similar to the Cowboys. And Tapper playing defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, leaving him double-teamed the majority of the time.

         Still, both excelled: Collins, a Cornhuskers' team captain, second-team All-Big Ten and Academic All-Big Ten in 2015; Tapper All-Big 12 first team and honorable mention All-American by Sports Illustrated.

         Both are sorely needed by the Cowboys.

         Now!

         OK, it's only been a couple of practices during last weekend's rookie minicamp, but both have caught the attention of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, and you can readily tell when asking about the two guys when the defensive maestro begins his answer with, "Ooohhhh …" That's his signature way of letting you know he's seen something.

         Same with the Cowboys head coach. After being around a guy all these years you learn mannerisms. So the other day when asking Jason Garrett if he thought these two guys, Collins and Tapper, were good enough to contribute immediately, to provide a defensive-front upgrade, he flashed that look, the one with raised eyebrows, as if you were on to something.

         Now wouldn't that be something, the Cowboys hitting on third- and fourth-round picks immediately, actually improving a defensive front in need of improvement with rookies instead of expensive or those chancy risk-reward veteran free agents?

Sure, it's no secret the Cowboys have been trying to improve their pass rush over the past four years, but to no avail. They finished the 2012 and 2013 seasons with only 34 sacks, matching their fewest since totaling 33 in 2004. Then their sack total dropped to 28 in 2014, and after much ado to improve, rose by just three (31) in 2015, those two sums the fewest since the 24 of the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

And now they possibly will start the 2016 season without their two projected starting defensive ends, Randy Gregory suspended the first four games for violation of the league's substance abuse policy, which will coincide with DeMarcus Lawrence's four-game suspension for violation of the NFL drug policy, still under appeal.

What to do? What to do?

What they didn't do might be best. The Cowboys refused to get into an unrestricted bidding war for any of those name rushers, namely Olivier Vernon, who signed a potentially five-year, $85 million contract with the Giants, as much as $52.5 million guaranteed. That for a guy who had 7.5 sacks last season following a 6.5-sack season in 2014. Now the guy had totaled 29 sacks over four seasons with the Dolphins, averaging out to 7.5 a season. Nice, right? But a tad extravagant wouldn't you say for a nice sack total.

I mean, I've been busting on Jeremy Mincey leading the Cowboys with all of six sacks in 2014, the fewest by a leader since Greg Ellis' six in 2001, and matching the fewest by a leader since sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982. And this Vernon guy gets all that for another sack-and-a-half?

         The moves the Cowboys did make were these: Signing Oakland restricted free agent defensive end Benson Mayowa for a conservative three-year, $8.25 million deal, with but $3.3 million guaranteed (signing bonus); re-signing defensive end Jack Crawford to a one-year, $1.1 million contract, with $240,000 guaranteed; and signing unrestricted free agent defensive tackle Cedric Thornton to a four-year, $17 million contract, with $6 million initially guaranteed.

         Those would be considered taking only bite-sized chunks out of a huge void since they have vowed not touch Greg Hardy again with a 10-foot pole, and are counting on not only Lawrence and Gregory to be productive in their returns, but also possibly getting something more out of last year's promising rookie David Irving, maybe something out of last year's fifth-round pick Ryan Russell and knowing moving starting 3-tech tackle Tyrone Crawford to defensive end on an interim basis is a possibility.

          This is where the Cowboys' rookie Double-Play Bundle comes in. Tapper will be considered a right defensive end, the speed rusher off the blind side. That's where a 4.59-second time in the 40-yard dash gets you. Plus, he'll be lining up on the outside edge of the tackle now, instead of on the inside, two-gapping like at OU. Watch some of his college highlights. He does have a suddenness to his game for being only a fourth-round pick.

         Then Collins, initially being considered the potential backup to Tyrone Crawford at the 3-technique. This guy has speed and quickness, too, for a 311-pounder. Watch his workout video. Moves like a linebacker, for real, within 10 to 20 yards. And he must be strong. He benched 225 pounds 25 times at the combine, and remember, he just turned 21 a month ago, coming out as a junior. And at Nebraska he squatted 785 pounds. Seriously, there's video.[embeddedad0]

         Now if he can quickly make the transition to the NFL, then if need be, the Cowboys will consider Crawford moving to the strong-side defensive spot (left) and inserting Collins next to Thornton to man the middle. That all leaving Benson, Tapper and Irving on the right side.

         From a name-recognition standpoint, probably not exactly causing offensive coordinators to nervously tumble around with their colored pens as Ernie Zampese incessantly did. 

         But you know what, and must credit this thought to a Twitter follower, this defensive personnel might be better than that from the 12-4 team of 2014. Gave me pause.

         The starting defensive ends that year were Mincey and George Selvie. They combined for nine sacks. This past season, Mincey started six games for the Cowboys. He had as many sacks as me and you. Selvie started three games for the Giants. He finished with one more sack than me and you.

         Today, neither is on a roster.

         The rest up front from 2014? Well Henry Melton played his way out of the starting lineup (currently an unsigned free agent), the former Chicago Pro Bowler finishing with but five sacks. Anthony Spencer (currently unsigned) kept trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to play his way through a degenerative knee condition. Tyrone Crawford started three games at defensive end coming off his missed 2013 season (torn Achilles), and then moved inside to the 3-technique when Melton increasingly became a liability. Lawrence played in only seven regular-season games (foot injury) his rookie year. No sacks. Jack Crawford actually recorded two sacks in six games before a broken thumb IR-ed him after the game in his native London.

         Gosh, the most consistent D-lineman that year might have been Nick Hayden, his 52 tackles (no sacks) leading the defensive front. He, too, even with a visit to Seattle this offseason, is unsigned, and apparently the Cowboys have moved on.

         That's just two years ago, but so far, eight of the defensive linemen who played for the Cowboys in 2014 are not on someone's current roster.

         Also remember that during the 2014 season, Sean Lee (torn ACL) didn't play even one game. Morris Claiborne (torn patellar tendon) played in only four. Also finishing on IR that year, along with those two and J. Crawford, were linebackers Justin Durant (elbow) and DeVonte Holloman (neck, retired), defensive end Lavar Edwards (groin) and Melton (knee).

         Yet, there the Cowboys were, an overturned ruling on a Dez Bryant reception from being on the 2-yard line ready to erase a 26-21 Packers lead in that second-round playoff game in Green Bay with 4:06 left to play and the NFC Championship Game in Seattle, where they already had won that season, the next stop.

         Marinelli Magic?

         You bet. That and averaging 29.2 points a game.

         By the way, those only other players from former Big Eight Conference bitter rivals Oklahoma and Nebraska drafted by the Cowboys in the same year back in '68? None other than offensive tackle Bob Taucher of Nebraska in the seventh round and running back Ron Shotts of Oklahoma in the 11th round. Neither made the team.

         Willing to bet this NU-OU bundle immediately brings significantly more joy.

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