Expectations were sky-high for Byron Cowart coming out of high school. He was a five-star recruit and the top defensive prospect in the country when he decided to take his talents to Auburn. However, he and the Tigers never quite seemed to match: Cowart saw only limited opportunities along their defensive before eventually asking for his release from the program three games into his 2017 junior season.
He went on to transfer to Hillsborough Community College to focus on both his academics and on taking care for his mother. Cowart earned his degree, and later joined Maryland as part of its 2018 recruiting class. In his lone season with the Terrapins, he was able to get his career back on track again by appearing in 12 games, having his most productive collegiate season, and being named an honorable All-Big Ten mention.
And yet, Cowart had to wait until the fifth round of the NFL’s 2019 draft to hear his name called: the New England Patriots, who had just won the Super Bowl in large part because of a historic defensive performance, moved up three spots to grab Cowart with the 159th overall selection.
“He was a a 5-technique in their kind of three-man front. They were really a 3-4 defense so he played a little bit more 5-technique,” said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio during his post-draft press conference last April. “He’s probably a little bit more of a run player. I mean, this guy is really thick when you see him. He’s well-built, he’s really strong and plays powerful at the point of attack. He did some decent things at Auburn and he did some decent things at Maryland as well.”
Joining an interior defensive line that was led by Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Danny Shelton, and also included veterans Michael Bennett (at least initially) as well as Deatrich Wise Jr, Cowart earned himself a spot on the 53-man roster by playing some solid football in training camp and preseason. Once the regular season was kicked off, however, the rookie had only a limited impact while being buried on the depth chart.
Cowart appeared in five games as a rotational defensive tackle and played just 43 defensive snaps all year. He registered one quarterback hit and two additional hurries in his limited playing time, and also notching a pair of tackles in the running game, but was still not capable of carving out a regular role or emerging from his status as the last layer of depth.
Heading into the 2020 season, however, his outlook could very much change.
While originally heading towards training camp again projected as the number four defensive tackle behind Guy, Butler and free agency acquisition Beau Allen, Cowart has seen increased practice reps due to Allen’s absence. Much like he did last summer, the 24-year-old has taken advantage of his opportunities so far — a fact that was also pointed out by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a media conference call earlier this week.
Speaking about Cowart’s development in his team’s system, Belichick lauded the steps that he has taken especially when it comes to rushing the passer.
“I think he’s been primarily a run player throughout his career, when he was at Auburn and also when he was at Maryland,” said Belichick. “I’m not saying he can’t rush the passer, but I’d say the pass rush is an area that he’s worked hard to develop and improve on because he hasn’t had as much experience or exposure with it, but he’s a very strong and physical player. I think he’s one of the most explosive players that we’ve had or do have.
“But, really for him, it’s a lot about experience and technique and he made a ton of growth in the last 12 months here from where he was last year in training camp. That’s going to hopefully continue to ascend. His pass rush techniques have gotten much better. DeMarcus [Covington] and Joe Kim have both worked very hard with him on developing things that will work for him, not necessarily what another player does or doesn’t do, but really trying to utilize his strengths and skillset.”
Cowart may not yet have developed into a true three-down player for the Patriots, but they probably don’t need him to be: Guy is one of the most well-rounded defensive tackles in the game, with Butler a strong interior rusher who also has taken big strides as a run defender since arriving in New England as an undrafted free agent in 2017. At least this year, Cowart’s role could therefore be the one that Allen is supposed to play: eat space on early downs and provide upside if inserted in passing situations.
“I’d say his development in both areas has been significant, but he’s probably made more growth in the pass rush area, just because he didn’t do it as much,” said Belichick about Cowart’s growth since his rookie season. “He played a lot of four-technique at Maryland, which isn’t the most advantageous position to rush from, but he played it well — I’m not saying that. I’d say we have a little more variety and balance here than what he had in college, or even going back to Auburn.”
Two weeks into his second NFL training camp, Cowart appears to be trending in the right direction: he has been disruptive on numerous occasions, and is on his way to earning a spot on the roster yet again. His development as a pass rusher and run defender that Belichick mentioned now has him factor into the mix at New England’s defensive tackle position.