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Star Evaluation: Overshadowed By Rookie Class, Collins Still Stood Out

The roster turnover is already underway. Free agency has now begun and the 2017 NFL Draft isn't far away. Over the next few weeks, the Cowboys will lose and replace a sizable portion of their roster.

For every new face, however, there are dozens of familiar ones who will return to begin a new campaign. From established veterans to second-year players, the vast majority of the Cowboys' 2017 team is already on the roster. In the coming weeks, the staff of will preview those players, analyzing where they've been and where they're going.

Today we'll continue the series with defensive tackle Maliek Collins.

What's Been Good: To say that Collins was a pleasant surprise last season would be a vast understatement. Selected in the third round, 67th overall, of the 2016 draft, he joined the team after earning Second Team All-Big Ten honors in his final two years at Nebraska. A team captain for the Cornhuskers in 2015, he was expected to contribute immediately to the Cowboys' defensive line rotation.

Needless to say, he did … and then some. After coming off the bench in Dallas' first two games, he slid into the starting role in Week 3 and remained there for the remainder of the season, appearing in all 16 games. Collins totaled five sacks, which not only ranked second on the Cowboys but was also tops in the league for rookie defensive tackles and seventh overall among his fellow NFL freshmen.

In addition, Collins was third on the team with 14 quarterback pressures while also posting 31 tackles, which was second behind only Terrell McClain for a Dallas defensive lineman. He rounded things out with one tackle for loss, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery

What's Been Bad: It's hard to find much fault in anything Collins has done thus far in his short career. Most of his success, though, seemingly came on passing plays. Even in the playoff loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, he led the Cowboys with four quarterback pressures.

Which means a case could be made that he needs to improve against the run. The independent grading website Pro Football Focus ranked him as among the worst interior defensive linemen in that aspect of the game, for whatever that's worth. Defensive tackles are often asked to give up themselves in order to free others to make the tackle. It can be a tough role to accept, but there's nothing to suggest Collins won't eventually thrive in attacking rushers, especially given that he tops 300 pounds.[embeddedad0]

2016 Highlight: Collins racked up two sacks at the Browns in Week 9, the first time a Cowboys rookie defenseman had posted at least two since linebacker DeVonte Holloman also had a pair against Philadelphia on Dec. 29, 2013. But Collins was perhaps even better when Dallas defeated the Buccaneers in front of a primetime Sunday night audience in Week 15. With the game tied, 3-3, after the first quarter, Collins broke through on Tampa Bay's first play of the second frame to sack Jameis Winston. In doing so, he also stripped the quarterback of the ball and then recovered the prize himself, giving the Cowboys possession at the visitors' 14-yard line. Jumpstarted, the team was in the end zone five players later. Collins also had two quarterback pressures in the eventual 26-20 victory.

What's Next: There is always talk of the dreaded sophomore slump, but with a full offseason of workouts and a year of confidence under his belt, Collins should see even bigger and better times ahead. Much is made of the young impact players on offense, but with guys like Collins, Anthony Brown and potentially Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper also getting plucked out of last year's draft, the Cowboys came up big on the other side of the ball as well. The hope is a defensive foundation is being laid for the future with Collins an integral part of that building process.

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