Daily Focus: Maliek Collins injury means more reshuffling along Cowboys’ D-line

Senior Analyst Sam Monson discusses the ramifications of Maliek Collins' injury, as well as the expectations for Tavon Austin in LA.

| 5 months ago
(Brandon Wade/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)

(Brandon Wade/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)

Daily Focus: Maliek Collins injury means more reshuffling along Cowboys’ D-line

Editor’s note: Every weekday in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.

Cowboys rookie DL breaks foot, causes more reshuffling along defensive front: Rookie DT Maliek Collins was being counted on by the Cowboys to play significant snaps this season, but his preparation has been dealt a blow with news that he has broken his foot and requires surgery, sidelining him for 10-12 weeks, which would mean missing all of training camp.

With Randy Gregory dealing with suspension and Greg Hardy allowed to walk in free agency, this Cowboys’ defensive front was already thin, but now a lot will rest on the shoulders of Tyrone Crawford and new acquisition Cedric Thornton.

Thornton came over from Philadelphia. where he had been a starting defensive end in their 3-4 front, but will play inside at tackle for the Cowboys. The big question mark for him, though, is whether he can provide anything as a pass-rusher after excelling as a run-stuffer for the Eagles.

Thornton was often asked to play two gaps in Philadelphia, and he has three-straight seasons of strong run-defense grades, but over the same timespan, has just three sacks to his name and negative pass-rush grades in each season.

He was a player that would usually leave the field in sub packages, and played just 51.0 percent of the team’s defensive snaps a year ago, but in a more aggressive front in Dallas, he might prove more successful. If he doesn’t, the Cowboys need to find sub-package production from somebody early if Collins is not ready to go.

The most likely source is Terrell McClain, a former third-round pick of the Carolina Panthers who was completely overwhelmed when asked to start as a rookie, but has flashed in a backup role since then. McClain has the kind of quickness that can succeed at this level, but is undersized and wasn’t able to deal with NFL power as a rookie. Over the past two seasons, he has played just 394 snaps as a backup in Dallas, but could find his way to an increased role early this season if Collins is not ready to help once Week 1 arrives.

Stephen Bowen retires after 10 years in NFL: 10 years in the NFL is often held up as the target achievement for players coming into the league at draft time, and Stephen Bowen is now hanging them up after his 10th season, though he was more of a rotational player than a starter throughout most of his career.

As an undrafted free agent out of Hofstra, whatever way you look at it, Bowen beat the odds to play as long as he did, even if he never quite stood out and took that next step forward that it looked like he might at one time.

In 2010, he put together the best season of his career as a situational player for Dallas, notching pressure in all but four games, and earning a good pass-rush grade on around half of the team’s available snaps, earning himself a starting spot down the stretch.

He parlayed that into a free-agent contract offer from Washington, where he became the starter in 2011, posting a career-high seven sacks, but couldn’t match the grading of the season before. Ultimately, his career stagnated in Washington, and he never developed like it had seemed he might, but he finishes his career with a positive grade, making some plays against the run on the 141 snaps he picked up in 2015.


Bowen may not have been the 10-year starter everybody looks for come draft time, but 10 years in the NFL as an undrafted free agent is quite an achievement.

Jeff Fisher sees Tavon Austin catching 100 passes this year: Heading into year four of the Tavon Austin experiment, the Rams still don’t appear to have much idea what to do with the player they moved up aggressively in the first round of the 2013 draft to secure.

Austin has moved around on offense in an attempt to maximize his playmaking ability, but while 2015 was his best season, he still had just 907 yards from scrimmage to his name over the full season, or fewer than Kamar Aiken in Baltimore.

Jeff Fisher, at least, is bullish about his prospects, claiming he could double his reception total and notch over 100 passes in 2016. Four players topped 100 receptions in 2014, with seven managing it in 2015, and the league has never been more set up to produce catches by volume.

Austin caught 64.2 percent of the passes sent his way in 2015, meaning that, for him to top 100 catches this season at that same rate, he would need 156 targets, which would have been the sixth-highest total of 2015.

The issue for Austin is that the five players with more targets than that in 2015 are all outside, perimeter, unquestioned No. 1 targets for their offenses, and Austin can’t be that guy at his size. He needs to be the Jarvis Landry of his offense—a smaller, shifty receiver that can be reliable underneath and on quick passes, picking up yardage after the catch. Landry caught 110 passes in 2015, so that role can certainly achieve those numbers, but that isn’t how the Rams have been deploying Austin to date. He may be thought of as a slot receiver, but only 17 of his 81 targets (21.0 percent) came from the slot in 2015.

The Rams have been lining Austin up outside and then feeding him the ball on bubble screens and quick hitches with the occasional deep route worked in. Austin runs one of the most basic route trees in the NFL, and until that develops, there is little to no chance of him catching those 100 passes.


| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

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