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Cowboys see Maliek Collins as cornerstone player

In three seasons at Nebraska, Maliek Collins had eight tackles, 19 quarterback hurries and 23 tackles for loss. Nati Harnik/AP Photo

IRVING, Texas -- When Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli spoke to Maliek Collins on the phone last Friday, he was as excited as he could be.

“You fit us to a T,” Marinelli told the Cowboys’ third-round pick.

While Ezekiel Elliott, their first-round pick, is expected to bring the most immediate production and Jaylon Smith, their second-round pick, could be the biggest game-changer in the future after he recovers from a knee injury, Collins has a chance to be the most surprising.

“He’s going to be a cornerstone player,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said.

With the looming penalties facing Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys’ defensive line will be in a state of flux through the first month of the season. The Cowboys discussed using their four best linemen and making the pieces fit, which could see Tyrone Crawford move from the under-tackle spot to left defensive end to start the year, provided Collins is what the Cowboys think he could be.

In three seasons at Nebraska he had 86 tackles, 19 quarterback hurries and 23 tackles for loss. He was a captain. In 2014, he was a first-team All-Big 10 pick. His numbers dropped in 2015 in part because of a coaching change and different philosophy that the Cowboys felt had him playing out of position.

When he arrives this week for rookie minicamp there will be no doubt about his position: Marinelli’s critical three-technique spot.

Assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett worked out Collins before the draft.

“We got after it for about two hours on the field,” Collins said. “Just getting good video so he could take back to the guys.”

Clearly the Cowboys liked what they saw.

“He’s a guy when we started the second round we look at as someone that could potentially step in here and have those kind of snaps,” Jones said. “I’m reluctant to say starter because I don’t want to do that. On the other hand he’s going to get a lot of snaps. I do predict that now.”