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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: The eyes of this DE are upon you


FRISCO, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys 2024 post-NFL Draft analysis centered mostly on two factors.

That the Cowboys used their first-round pick on Oklahoma offensive tackle Tyler Guyton, the eventual presumptive replacement for the departed Tyron Smith at left tackle.

And that they used the first of two third-round picks to draft Kansas State guard Cooper Beebe, the eventual presumptive replacement for the departed Tyler Biadasz at center.

Those two proclaimed top priorities.

But hey, what about defensive end? What about if and when new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer decides to move Micah Parsons around? Get it because the Cowboys are just fine with Parsons and veteran DeMarcus Lawrence playing defensive end on the first unit.

But think about this: Zimmer moves Parsons to linebacker. Then just who joins Lawrence on those plays at defense end?

Remember, there's no more Dorance Armstrong. The at-times starting defensive end took the big bucks and his 16 sacks over the past two seasons to follow former defensive coordinator turned Washington head coach Dan Quinn to the Nation's Capital.

Maybe Dante Fowler Jr.? After all, he finished fourth on the team in 2023 with his four sacks. Nope. Fowler, too, decided in free agency to put on a Commanders hat.

Now what? Well, there's Sam Williams, finishing third on the team last season with 4½ sacks. Chauncey Golston maybe? Well, not really. The Cowboys have been employing the 2021 third-round draft choice inside at defensive tackle heading into the final year of his rookie contract. Maybe Viliami Fehoko? The 2023 fourth-round pick didn't play a snap last year.

And that is why, at least to me, drafting defensive end Marshawn Kneeland with their 2024 second-round pick is a big deal. Needs to be a big deal. The Cowboys need help at defensive end, especially if you consider Lawrence is ready to begin his 11th year in the NFL with the Cowboys and already has turned 32 years old. Not to mention he's in the final year of his contract.

As important as Guyton and Beebe are to the Cowboys in this draft and going forward, Kneeland is right there with them in that same boat.

He's got to be a player there, and frankly now.

And must admit, haven't seen Kneeland play a down of football. Even if I've happened to run across a Western Michigan game over his past five seasons there, not sure would have known he was out there.

But here is what initially has caught my eye, er, my attention. Back in May, in a piece on, Kneeland's Western Michigan defensive line coach David Denham pointed out how much Kneeland was a student of the game. How he endlessly would watch video preparing for the next game.

Even revealed that Kneeland called him from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., this past January to ask Denham if he could send cutups of these Senior Bowl offensive tackles he was going to face in practice and possibly in the game.

Reading that, I'm going, "No way." Not some kid getting ready for the NFL Draft being that diligent preparing for a Senior Bowl week. Never heard of that.

So, Marshawn, you really did that?

"That is something (Coach Denham) does in general. Where he helps out a lot, where he helped out (Ali Fayad, former WMU defensive end) before me," Kneeland said. "Said it's always good to watch film against guys you are going to go against. It's good to know your competition."

Well, there Kneeland was, watching film in his spare time in Mobile of the Senior Bowl offensive tackles. Sort of reminds me of Beebe, the K-State guard converting to center with the Cowboys talking about how when he was here at The Star for the rookie minicamp getting in some practice snaps in his spare time next door at one of the vacant Omni hotel ballrooms to anyone he could find to catch.

Well, Marshawn, any of that overtime video work help?

"Oh yeah," Kneeland said with a smile. "I noticed a couple of guys I'd go against. Some had weak shoulders, some were over-setters. One I especially remember, he uses his one hand inside more, so I knew when I'd go against him, I'd get his inside hand first, and stuff like that."

Stuff like that?

Hey, Greg Ellis, the former Cowboys 1998 first-round draft choice out of North Carolina as a defensive end and now the Cowboys' new defensive line assistant coach with an eye toward ends, you ever heard of a guy studying tape at the Senior Bowl?

"Really? Really? No, but that doesn't surprise me," Ellis said of Kneeland, who at 6-3, 237 is a tad light for an NFL defensive. "When I first saw him on the film, I fell in love with him."

What about you, Zimm, having been in this coaching business, first in college then in the NFL, since 1979?

"I've never heard of that either," Zimmer said.

Here is the other Kneeland characteristic that caught the Cowboys eye, trumping any doubts about the level of competition he might have faced at Western Michigan, though having played the likes of Syracuse, Iowa and Michigan State during the 2023 season.

The guy is relentless.

"He plays his butt off, plays real hard when you watch him out here now," Zimm said of just these helmet, jersey and shorts practices since arriving for the rookie minicamp. "Everything is like a play. Think he'll play the run well, but he also has a chance inside, rushing."

Sort of reminds of Ellis, a hard worker, relentless competitor and a defensive end during his 11 seasons with the Cowboys (1998-08) understanding the importance of playing the run, too. Not always about sacks, having led the Cowboys, though, in sacks for six seasons.

"Effort man, effort," Ellis exclaimed. "Now, he has some athletic ability. But for me, with that athletic ability, doubled with that effort he does have, you give us an opportunity to have a successful draft.

"I don't know, but when you've been around the game that long you get like a sixth sense, and mine was really tingling when I saw him (on video). Like, wherever he goes, here or somewhere else (in the draft), he'll have a great football career."

There is a story behind this effort deal. Kneeland said initially in high school he was a safety, and that since he was smaller at the time, "I was already running around."

Then he was moved to defensive end.

"Being a smaller guy playing D-Line, you have to give effort, you have to run, which helped my game. And as I got bigger throughout high school and then in college, I kept that with me because that is something that I hold true. Like, no matter how big or small you are, if you are giving effort out there, going max, and obviously I had the leg strength, so I was always pushing guys using my legs.

"I just took that with me and keep it now."

That is how a guy from Western Michigan, thinking he possibly was going to get drafted somewhere between the third and fifth round, goes in the second round of the NFL Draft to the Cowboys with the 87th overall selection.

That's how during one of the early no-helmet OTA practices, saying it was an innocent slipup, an accident, he gets hit in the nose and has to go in to have his nose as he says, "realigned."

But you can bet when the helmets came on for the mandatory minicamp, Kneeland was back out on the field. Sounds like this guy doesn't sit still, doesn't waste time.

"The effort that he gives every single play, it doesn't surprise me he goes to the Senior Bowl and calls back, 'Hey coach, I want you to give me reports on all these offensive linemen,'" Ellis said. "That doesn't surprise me about this kid."

Training camp is still another good five weeks away. The first practice just less than six weeks away. The pads are likely to come on the last week of July following that ramp-up period.

Note to the likes of Terence Steele, Chuma Edoga, Matt Waletzko and anyone else lining up at offensive tackle – beware.

There just might be eyes already on you.

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