Do the Cowboys Have the NFL's Worst Front 7?

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 11, 2014

Dallas Cowboys linebackers coach Matt Eberflus instructs Bruce Carter and others as they run drills during an NFL football organized team activity, Monday, June 2, 2014, in Irving, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Few will dispute the notion that the three best defensive players on the Dallas Cowboys' roster last year were, in no particular order, Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee.

That's the way I saw things, it's the way Bleacher Report's Matt Miller saw things and it's the way Pro Football Focus (subscription required) saw things. 

Dallas Cowboys: Top defensive grades, 2013
1. Jason HatcherDT27.3
2. DeMarcus WareDE12.6
3. Sean LeeMLB8.7
4. Sterling MooreCB3.0
5. Orlando ScandrickCB2.7
Pro Football Focus

In fact, Hatcher, Ware and Lee were the only front-seven defenders on the team with at least 25 snaps to earn positive PFF grades.

With those three Pro Bowl-caliber veterans, this was still a defense that gave up the third-worst yards-per-rushing-attempt average in the league (4.7), while putting together the lowest sack rate in the NFL (5.2) and surrendering the third-highest single-season yardage total in the history of the game (6,645).

Most yards allowed in a season, NFL history
TeamYearYards allowed
1. New Orleans Saints20127042
2. Baltimore Colts19816793
3. Dallas Cowboys20136645
4. Green Bay Packers20116585
5. New England Patriots20116577
Pro Football Reference

Now, Lee is out for the entire 2014 season, Hatcher is a member of the Washington Redskins and Ware has joined the Denver Broncos.

So, it's hard to imagine there's a worse front seven in football, which is why Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth ranked the Cowboys dead last in his front-seven rankings this week:

Henry Melton arrives as a younger, more system-suited replacement for Hatcher, but everything else is a shambles. Bruce Carter, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman form the most anonymous linebacker corps in the league, and only Carter has any significant starting experience. Anthony Spencer may start the season on the PUP list as he battles back from microfracture surgery on his knee. And of course, the Cowboys are so cap-stressed that they wouldn't be able to sign a veteran reinforcement, even if one becomes available this late in the offseason.

Let's compare our projected Dallas front seven (Carter, Durant, Holloman, Spencer, Melton, George Selvie and Nick Hayden) to the four units Tanier grouped them with in the bottom five:

NFL's worst front sevens? What the numbers say
TeamStartsPro BowlsSacksINTCombined 2013 PFF grade
Pro Football Reference/Focus

That chart would get a whole lot worse for the Cowboys if we were to take away Spencer and/or Melton, both of whom are question marks.

The addition of Melton could pay off, but the 27-year-old is also coming back from reconstructive knee surgery. He might soften the blow from Hatcher's departure, but that won't likely be enough to get this front seven to a point of respectability.

The Cowboys would need Carter to flourish, which was supposed to happen last year after he sometimes resembled a young Ray Lewis back in 2012. It didn't, as the former second-round pick struggled to adapt to Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense and was abused in coverage.

He has the talent to excel in any system, but the jury is still out. 

They'd also need Durant to become a reliable presence in place of Lee. This isn't out of the question, because the 28-year-old is a versatile veteran who has been relied on before. Tanier notes that only Carter has significant starting experience in that linebacking corps, but that's plain wrong. Durant might not be a star, but he has started 74 games in seven seasons. 

Finally, as Tanier states, they'd have to get some early returns from younger players: 

The wisest thing the Cowboys could do is insert rookies Demarcus Lawrence and Anthony Hitchens into the rotation quickly and let them learn on the job. The Cowboys did not get into this predicament by doing the wise thing. But they are so thin and talent-poor that they may not have a choice.

Holloman is expected to compete for a starting spot, too. If that trio can deliver in 2014, this front seven could surprise.

Dallas: Youngsters who could surprise
DeVonte Holloman23LB185th, 2013
DeMarcus Lawrence22DE34th, 2014
Anthony Hitchens22LB119th, 2014
Pro Football Reference

It should be noted that Tanier is talking talent, not coaching.

While at least there's some promise among recent draft picks like Lawrence, Hitchens, Holloman and Carter and some hope for veterans like Melton, Durant and Spencer, the best thing this defensive front has going for it is the presence of D-line magician Rod Marinelli.

With Spencer out and Ware hobbled, things could have been a whole lot worse for that defensive line last year, but Marinelli—who has since been promoted from D-line coach to defensive coordinator—found a way to make journeymen like Selvie, Hayden and Jarius Wynn look half-decent.

It's a testament to the kind of coach Marinelli is that the defensive line was somehow the strongest facet of the Dallas "D" in 2013, because the Cowboys used a league-high 20 defensive linemen over the course of the season.

To put that in perspective, no other NFL team used more than 32 defensive players in total.

With Morris Claiborne still flirting with the bust label and Brandon Carr trying unsuccessfully to live up to his lucrative salary, it isn't likely that the secondary will save this front seven. It will need to carry its weight without its three best players from a year ago.

So, yes, right now on paper, this is probably the worst front seven in football.

But there is talent there, as well as good coaching and a nice mix of youth and experience. All that matters is where this unit ranks in December and January, rather than in June.