Setting the year one expectations for Cowboys second-round draft pick Marshawn Kneeland

The draft is just a little over a week old, but it’s hard to contain the excitement for the new players the Dallas Cowboys have added to their roster. The team’s first three picks are players many expect will make an immediate impact. We previously dove into what Tyler Guyton’s first year might look like. Today, we’ll look closer at the team’s second-round draft pick, defensive end Marshawn Kneeland.

Kneeland is an interesting player. Spending five years at Western Michigan he’s subjected to the usual skepticism that accompanies smaller school prospects. Adding more uncertainty is his lack of eye-popping statistics against this lower-level competition. And finally, putting a stamp on the enigma that is Kneeland, his non-typical frame makes him a bit of a tweener between what you’d see from a traditional 4-3 edge rusher and 3-4 defensive end.

Despite all that, Kneeland’s traits commanded a lot of attention as he entered the draft as one of the better defensive end prospects in the league. He had one of the busiest pre-draft processes as half the teams in the league had scheduled visits with him. Kneeland’s athleticism is the big draw, and by now you are probably aware of his super-high RAS score showcasing all his athletic traits. The quickness combined with great length makes him one of the better speed-to-power pass rushers coming out of college.

The fascinating thing about Kneeland is that the skill set he brings isn’t one of an elite edge rusher who will rack up the sacks, hence the less-than-impressive sack production in college. But where he shines is disruption. He uses his length and strength to disengage, allowing him to roam freely on the prowl. This is why he’s viewed as a strong run-stopping asset. His speed and high motor allow him to chase down ball carriers. He also draws a lot of attention from blockers. He’s not someone who can be contained one-on-one. If this guy commands extra attention, imagine what this will free up for some of the other Cowboys’ pass rushers.

We mentioned earlier that he’s a bit of a tweener and it might not be clear where he’ll line up with this defense, but that’s okay. Kneeland is a versatile player who can come at you on the inside or outside, line up with his hand in the dirt, or stand up with a running start. He’s a player who can be used in different ways to create confusion for opposing blockers.

What should we expect in year one? First off, even though Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence are the bookends along the defensive line, there are many snaps up for grabs this season. The departures of Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler leave 749 reps vacated. That alone provides some opportunities. The Cowboys also use defensive ends to attack from the middle quite frequently as 64% of the defensive line snaps were occupied by non-defensive tackles last season. In short, there’s a lot of opportunity for Kneeland to have a meaningful role this upcoming season. The question is can he seize those opportunities? We believe he can.

The big reason for this is his expected usage. Kneeland won’t be limited to spelling Lawrence in a take-your-time development role. He has the processing skills to be an immediate contributor on early downs. Using him and Tank together will strengthen the Cowboys’ run-stopping ability on the edge. It will also provide the team with new ways to deploy the dynamic Parsons, allowing new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to get creative with his simulation pressure schemes.

And don’t expect Kneeland to be restricted to early down work. He can also be used to attack from the middle as a glorified 3-tech in pass-rushing situations. His athleticism will open the door to possibilities. We should also expect to see an expanded role for Sam Williams as he’ll inherit many of Fowler’s third-down pass-rushing reps, but don’t be surprised if the rookie is on the field quite a bit in 2024.

The typical growing pains will still be there with Kneeland. His aggressive nature will lead to him over-pursuing and he will get lost in the commotion when battling much bigger interior blockers. Overall, his athletic traits and nose for the football will get him on the field, and he should also be an interesting piece for John Fassel’s special teams unit.

Prediction: He should come close to the Dorance Armstrong role where he plays 40% of the defensive snaps lining up all over the place and adding another 20% of the special teams snaps. With the occasional splash play here and there, look for Kneeland to finish with a respectable B performance grade in his rookie season.


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