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Spagnola: Expanding Pure 'Football Player' Roles


FRISCO, Texas – This is the new age NFL, where no longer are players pigeonholed into singular roles.

Like, you're just an offensive tackle. You're just a running back. You're just a linebacker or safety or outside cornerback.

Nope, hey, you are an athlete, and we need you on the field, somehow, someway, especially nowadays with such a restrictive salary cap eaten up by quarterbacks, left tackles, defensive ends, wide receivers and cornerbacks, not to mention a 53-man roster that ends up over the course of a 17-game season now encompassing, for the Cowboys, 69 players taking snaps in 2022.

The more you can do …

"I really try to spend as much time as I could on that to make things for us where people can play dual roles," Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said during the recent rookie minicamp. "Even on a day like (Saturday), there were certain people trying at different spots.

"I do like that, to find out what they can do. Not just this month but even during training camp, might see some guys in different spots just to test it out. You say, OK, we see this really long and fast guy, can he guard a tight end on third down and make him a linebacker, even though he's a defensive end? Or can this linebacker, can he rush? Can this safety go down and play nickel?"

Welcome, at times, to a position-less NFL, the biggest poster boy for that being Micah Parsons, a linebacker coming out of Penn State two years ago who is an amazing athlete. Can remember during the 2021 draft process being a proponent of taking this exceptional athlete in the first round, no matter being listed as a linebacker. But since the Cowboys were returning Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith that season, someone challenged my opinion, asking, well, where would you play Parsons?

My answer: "On the field."

And, boy, did the Cowboys play Parsons "on the field." In fact, all over the field. At weakside linebacker. Middle linebacker. Defensive end, either side. In coverages. On blitzes.

And as Quinn said this past week, not mincing words when asked about Parsons' position heading into this season, he said, "He's a pass-rushing linebacker."

A darn great one at that.

But also consider the position flex with other guys just this past season, not just Parsons. The Cowboys played a "big nickel" by dropping safety Jayron Kearse into a linebacker spot. They moved defensive end Chauncey Golston inside to a three-tech defensive tackle. Moved defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence at times inside to a pass-rushing defensive tackle. Without anyone realizing, rookie outside cornerback DaRon Bland became a slot corner when Jourdan Lewis went down for the season, Quinn pointing out that "behind the scenes we were working him at nickel, and when Jourdan was injured, he was ready for that space to go in and play well when that happened."

Even Israel Mukuamu, a cornerback at South Carolina, was moved to safety after being drafted in the sixth round two years ago. And before we knew it, there he was backing up Kearse in a "big nickel" role this past season.

And this versatility is not limited to the defense. Remember, 2022 first-round draft choice Tyler Smith, a tackle in college, trained at left guard until Tyron Smith went down before the start of the season. Well, he moved right back to left tackle, and when injuries struck the interior of the offensive line, Tyler slid back over to guard for a short time.

Now there seems the vacant left guard spot is overly creating concern out there. But you see drafted offensive tackle Josh Ball now competing for the starting guard spot. You see 2021 drafted guard Matt Farniok, having been moved to center as a rookie, now back competing at guard. Oh, and this year's fifth-round pick, Asim Richards, who pronounces his name "Awesome," a tackle at North Carolina, taking snaps during the rookie minicamp at left guard, and wouldn't it be something if indeed he was "awesome" there.

The Cowboys also have the ability of playing wide receivers CeeDee Lamb and newly acquired Brandin Cooks outside and in the slot. They could play two running backs last year, defenses not knowing if Tony Pollard was lining up as a running back or in the slot as a receiver. And even though releasing Ezekiel Elliott this offseason, the Cowboys could do the same this year pairing Pollard with either Ronald Jones or even Deuce Vaughn.

And watch out for undrafted rookie fullback Hunter Luepke, the newest Swiss Army knife from North Dakota State, where he played fullback, tailback, tight end, caught passes and even took Wildcat snaps at quarterback. Oh, and guarantee you if Luepke makes the team he will be a constant on special teams.

Finding versatile rookies this year almost seems a conscious decision. Take fourth-rounder Junior Fehoko, a defensive end at San Jose State. He already says the Cowboys are going to look at him as a three-tech defensive tackle too. Can see where Quinn's gears are grinding with possibilities for third-round draft choice DeMarvion Overshown, a linebacker at Texas, but maybe too fine an athlete to play just that. Think special teams here as well.

"A lot of players are coming in, hey, this guy is fast, he's athletic, get him on the field to play," Quinn said.

Does Overshown fit that mold?

"He definitely does," Quinn said without hesitation, as if Dr. Quinn can't wait to get these guys in his lab, centrifuging their talents.

And then there is this guy, another potential poster boy for multiple positions – undrafted rookie, uh, maybe defensive end Isaiah Land of Florida A&M. At 6-4, 215, Land led the FCU in 2021 with 19 sacks rushing as a defensive end, winner of that division's Defensive Player of the Year Award named after Buck Buchanan.

He has position-less "football player" written all over him, Quinn almost salivating over the possibilities of playing him at linebacker or big nickel, but probably one of the reasons he fell through the draft, few teams having a vision for what to do with a 215-pound defensive end.

"I've had my eye on 'Zay' for quite some time," Quinn said, first noticing Land when last year analyzing FAMU teammate Markquese Bell, who signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted rookie in 2022. "Who is this guy? So I kept up with him over the time, and I remember calling Markquese from the combine, 'Hey, what's up with this guy?' And the response came back, 'He's a dog.'

"From that time, I always had my vision of him, the size, the length, could this defensive end play linebacker? Could he go down? I know he can rush, so I'm just trying to add what else can they do. He's somebody I'm excited to see, and there is no timeline on that. Development takes time."

But as we've seen in this changing NFL, it's worth the time and cap-saving money to leave no position-flex unturned. And as we've seen within the Cowboys' internal organization, there always has been value in the motto "the more you can do."

And of late, it's certainly bleeding onto the football field. Versatility is becoming a highly sought-after premium. Take for example these do-all running backs these days. Guys such as Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. Or these hybrid tight ends such as Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, George Kittle, Mark Andrews and Zack Ertz.

Or even a Lawrence, a defensive end not only tying for the third-most sacks on the 2022 Cowboys defense with six and finishing second with 45 QB pressures, but also playing the run well enough to finish second with six tackles for loss and fifth overall with 61 total tackles.

Same with Parsons, leading the team with 13.5 sacks and 69 QB pressures but yet 54 total tackles and second with five for losses.

"I think for the amount of space-play we have, receivers that can be a runner or a runner that can be a receiver, or a tight end that can be a receiver, a defensive end that can play 'backer or a safety that can play nickel, those perimeter-type people, I think is changing that way," Quinn said.

"Certainly we are seeing that in college."

And now in the ever-evolving NFL. Multiple position-less "football players."

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