Cowboys 2nd-round pick Marshawn Kneeland named “best scheme fit” among rookie defenders

The Dallas Cowboys spent all four of their premium (top-100) picks in the 2024 NFL Draft potentially replacing starters that departed in free agency or retirement, and with that has come high expectations for this class to step in and contribute right away. Their highest drafted defensive player, DE Marshawn Kneeland, helps the Cowboys replenish their pass rush depth after Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler Jr. followed former DC Dan Quinn to the Commanders.

The Cowboys defense will be run by Mike Zimmer now, his first job in the NFL since 2021 as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. This leaves a lot of room for projection when it comes to what changes Zimmer’s defense may feature. Free agency offered only a few clues for the Cowboys, as they addressed linebacker with a former Zimmer defender in Eric Kendricks. They also plan on moving Markquese Bell back to safety, looking for bigger and more traditional linebackers that can stand up against the run, targeting another in the draft in the third round with Notre Dame’s Marist Liufau. Clearly this is a team trying to win more along the line of scrimmage, spending three other draft picks on the offensive line, and Kneeland’s skill set puts him in prime position to help the Cowboys do this on defense – so much so that the rookie was named one of the best scheme fits for all 2024 draft picks on this side of the ball by USA Today’s Touchdown Wire.

With Zimmer having a history of getting the most out of versatile defensive linemen that can play on the edge or interior like Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, the Cowboys went into this offseason rightfully optimistic about the work he can do with players like Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Sam Williams. It’s the veteran of this group in Lawrence that further helps justify the Cowboys using their second-round pick on Kneeland, as Dallas saw similarities from Kneeland’s tape at Western Michigan compared to Lawrence at Boise State. Lawrence turned 32 earlier this offseason, so the Cowboys getting a player with college production that can step in right away while also thinking about replacing one of their franchise cornerstones on defense in the near future makes this a smart pick.

The Cowboys already have one of the best in Micah Parsons, who can beat opposing blockers everywhere from head-over nose to wide-9 end, and can also beat offenses off-ball. Now, with the addition of Western Michigan’s Marshawn Kneeland with the 56th overall pick in the second round, they have two.

Last season for the Broncos, Kneeland totaled six sacks, 37 total pressures, 38 solo tackles, and 35 stops, and he did it all over the line, with all kinds of attacking techniques.

“The number one thing about him is the high effort and motor that he plays with,” Cowboys Vice President of Player Personnel Will McClay said of Kneeland. “Then to be talented, physically talented enough to play at this level. We noticed him early on. [Brett] Maxie is the area scout who brought him to our attention early, and the more you watch him, the more you see NFL traits and the traits that we are looking for on the defensive side; playing hard all the time and having the ability to rush the passer outside and inside. We’ve talked about it before, as hard as DLaw [DeMarcus Lawrence] played at Boise State, there are some similarities there. That is what we thought about him.”

In this clip featured in the article, longtime NFL evaluator Greg Cosell says that he thought “along with Jared Verse he may be the most explosive speed-to-power edge rusher in the draft”. Verse was the 19th overall pick to the Cleveland Browns out of Florida State. He also compared Kneeland’s college tape to Khalil Mack out of Buffalo, which is interesting considering both players came from smaller schools, with Mack obviously proving the big step up in competition at the NFL level wasn’t a problem. Kneeland will be looking to do the same with established players like Parsons and Lawrence ready to help the rookie not have too much on his plate in his first season.

Kneeland is a wrecking ball on tape, always finding a way to use his long, thick arms to push forward and finish around the ball. Even when he is stopped on his initial rush, Kneeland can reset and drive blockers to be disruptive and help teammates clean up plays.

There may be new wrinkles to Mike Zimmer’s defense that haven’t been seen on the field yet for Dallas, but some things never go out of style. Zimmer started in the NFL in 1994 with the Cowboys, so of all the teams he could have rejoined, he came back to a place that is familiar with some of these “old-school” concepts and a team desperate to implement them after getting pushed around in too many big games under Quinn. Kneeland’s nose for the football, relentless motor, comfort making plays tight to the line of scrimmage, and flexibility to line up in multiple spots in a front seven are all perfect examples of things that simply don’t go out of style for defensive linemen.

The Cowboys talked a lot of talk all offseason about being better against the run just because of their scheme change, but now with players like Kendricks, Liufau, Kneeland, and seventh-round pick Justin Rogers along with year two for Mazi Smith and DeMarvion Overshown, they have the names on paper to at least back up some of this talk. How Kneeland fits into Zimmer’s defensive line rotation will be very interesting to watch, as this is a player that just wants to be on the field competing and makes the absolute most out of every snap.


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