2023 rookie review: Junior Fehoko keeps strength in numbers approach to DL in new scheme

The Dallas Cowboys will be implementing their third defensive scheme since Mike McCarthy has been head coach, this year under new coordinator Mike Zimmer. The Cowboys are hopeful Zimmer can install his defense and get new personnel up to speed in time to keep that side of the ball as a strength, adding DE Marshawn Kneeland, LB Marist Liufau, CB Caelen Carson, and DT Justin Rogers in last week’s draft.

Kneeland and Rogers help the Cowboys replace defensive line starters that left in free agency like Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, Neville Gallimore, and Johnathan Hankins, but this front four will also be about getting breakout seasons from second- and third-year players in a new scheme. The more traditional alignments that Zimmer is expected to use has given new hope to nose tackle Mazi Smith as 2023’s first-round pick, but the same should go for fourth-round pick Junior Fehoko. Taking a true development year with experienced names ahead of him on the depth chart as a rookie, the pass rusher out of San Jose State now has a much better chance of getting in the rotation and making a name for himself in 2024.

Fehoko did spend most of his rookie season on IR with a knee injury. Activated at the end of the season, Fehoko is a bit undersized to play on the interior in the NFL, but had the speed and explosiveness to be a project in a defense that emphasized these traits under Quinn. Fehoko will still have a chance to show off his pass rush ability in Zimmer’s defense, with snaps up for grabs on both the interior and edge. This is a player that’s comfortable along the line of scrimmage, playing in tight spaces and flipping his hips well to run sideline-to-sideline defending the run.

Mazi Smith and Osa Odighizuwa may get the first look as the Cowboys defensive tackles in “base” sets, but when Dallas can put teams behind the chains and get after the quarterback, they may turn to players like Chauncey Golston and Fehoko to help on the rush. Either player getting snaps alongside Odighizuwa would be a major step in their development, with both being stout enough against the run to help Dallas turn their fortunes here.

The Cowboys have done much better seeing year two and three players develop than counting on rookies to contribute right away. In some ways 2024 may feel like a rookie season all over again for Fehoko in a new scheme without seeing the field in 2023, but the highest drafted defensive lineman he’ll have to compete against is Kneeland who expects to line up mostly on the edge. A year in the NFL’s strength and conditioning program, especially coming out of a smaller school, should have Fehoko more prepared to keep the Cowboys strength in numbers up front a positive.

For a team that sent a clear message that they want to be more physical along the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball with this year’s draft, it will take more than the five new rookies on the offensive and defensive lines to achieve this. Any playing time for Fehoko is an upgrade in year two, but with his traits and developmental path it shouldn’t come as a shock if he’s an important part of the rotation at some point this season.


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