On Friday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs acquired their second external free agent for the defensive line: former Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Byron Cowart. He played in rotation for all 17 games of last season, totaling 12 tackles and two tackles for loss.
While those 2022 stats won’t blow you away, there’s much more to Cowart than his tenure in Indianapolis. Let’s take a closer look at the newest Kansas City defender.
Out of high school, Cowart earned a five-star rating from 247sports.com, ranking as the country’s top strong-side defensive end. He committed to Auburn, where he failed to produce a sack over three seasons. So Cowart transferred to Maryland for his final year, racking up three sacks, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two interceptions before entering the 2019 NFL Draft.
At the NFL Combine, he measured 6 feet 3 and 298 pounds — along with an 81-inch wingspan and 33 3/4-inch arms. But his lack of college production (and poor athletic testing) made him a only fifth-round pick for the New England Patriots.
After starting 14 games in his second season — collecting 41 tackles (19 solo, five for loss), a sack and a pass defended — Cowart missed the entire 2021 season with an undisclosed injury. New England waived him during 2022’s training camp. The Colts then picked him up on waivers.
In Indianapolis, Cowart had a limited role behind starting defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart. He was primarily rotated into the lineup to help against the run on early downs, where his main function was to come off the ball hard, create penetration and disrupt running games. On obvious passing downs, Cowart remained on the sideline.
The #Chiefs signed former Colts' DT Byron Cowart on Friday. Cowart spent 2022 with IND as a rotational DT, after spending 2021 on the PUP list w/ NE— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 26, 2023
He only played 229 snaps for the Colts last yr, but his first step, length, and baseline strength made him a solid run defender pic.twitter.com/TGxxrbtgI7
Here we see that his good first step and long arms allow him to engage (and control) the blocker — and that his hands are strong enough to fight through bodies and work toward the ball carrier.
He doesn’t have enough physical size to easily stalemate a double team — but he can fight through them with good effort and hand fighting. Sometimes, though, that higher effort leads to bad technique — and Cowart ending up on the ground.
His use with the Colts, however, contrasted strongly with how the Patriots used him. In 2020, Cowart was one of the Patriots’ primary nose tackles. In New England’s 3-4 scheme, he was required to control blocks and defend gaps on both sides of the opposing blocker. To do this effectively, a balance of power and reaction skills is needed.
In '20, Cowart was one of the Patriots' primary NTs, being asked to 2-gap, controlling blocks and read/reacting to the ball— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 26, 2023
His length helps him in the block engagement, but he works towards the ball well too pic.twitter.com/KryRd6iBTj
On this play, Cowart does the job — looking much more stout than he did with Indianapolis.
From this position, Cowart was only rarely taken out of a play, He could usually work his way toward the ball by recognizing the play direction and quickly shedding a blocker. Just as with the Colts, he wasn’t perfect against double teams — but he was much more in control.
When the Patriots asked him to be a one-gap penetrator, he still showed off a good first step for his size. This comes from his background as a defensive end. He has the get-off (and and hand-fighting skill) of an EDGE — but from the inside, he simply isn’t bending around an edge (or getting to his moves effectively enough) to be a legitimate pass-rushing threat.
The intriguing part about Cowart is his pedigree: a 5-star HS recruit and the #1 overall DE prospect in the country— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) March 26, 2023
You can find those flashes in his pass-rush reps if you look hard enough, but they're too few and far between pic.twitter.com/XhWUnhwtl0
On these plays, he flashes good pass-rushing skills for his size — but these are some of the few examples you will find.
The bottom line
Before New England placed him on the Reserve/PUP list in 2021, Cowart was an ascending player who was continuing to develop in a position he had not played before. He was waived before he could bounce back — and the timing of that move may have impacted how effective he could be with the Colts in 2022.
If Cowart can get back on the roll he was starting to build in New England, he should be a legitimate competitor to become Kansas City’s starting defensive tackle — the position that Derrick Nnadi has occupied in recent seasons. In 2020, Cowart was as stout as Nnadi looked in 2022 — but against the run and pass, Cowart may have a higher ceiling as an overall playmaker.
Either way, this is the latest example of general manager Brett Veach buying low on a player who has more talent than his resume might suggest.