One of the most under-the-radar training camp position battles for the Dallas Cowboys will be at strong-side defensive end. At the moment, the Cowboys have George Selvie, Tyrone Crawford and possibly Anthony Spencer (if he can get healthy somehow) as potential starters.
What does a Strong-Side Defensive End do?
Before we get into which player will win and why, we must define what a SDE does and what attributes are necessary to be successful there, which will allow us to make the best and most informed decision.
The SDE lines up to the strong side, which is the side where the tight end lines up on most plays. This means that he is likely to face double-teams in the running game and may get chipped in the passing game depending on the situation.
Therefore, the strong-side end is usually stronger and more powerful than his counterpart on the weak side. Therefore, the SDE should be stout against the run and able to set the edge, funneling the run inside to the linebackers. He also must be able to play with leverage and use his hands well to keep offensive linemen off of his body, so he can shed the block if need be.
Against the pass, the SDE must be able use a variety of pass-rush techniques to get to the quarterback...but he also must be responsible for containing the quarterback, who is more likely to scramble to the side that is the same as his throwing hand. Therefore, right-handed quarterbacks usually scramble to the right and vice versa. Furthermore, the strong side of an offense is typically the right side, which means that if the strong-side end doesn’t do a good job maintaining his pass-rushing lane then the quarterback will have an easier time extending the play.
So far, we have established, in very basic terms, that the SDE must be great at stopping the run and keeping containment while rushing the passer. Which of the two players, Crawford or Selvie, has the skill set to accomplish these goals.
Who Will Win?
If everyone was healthy, Spencer would be the easy choice. He has everything you want in a strong-side end. He's very strong at the point of attack. When he was healthy, he was the Cowboys best run defender. In 2012, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Spencer at plus-15.6, which is fantastic.
However, Spencer is coming off of microfracture knee surgery, and there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding whether he will be ready come the start of the season, which leaves Crawford and Selvie to battle it out during training camp.
Both players have positives and negatives as to their prospects of being a very productive SDE for the Cowboys.
While Crawford is being billed as the next star of the defense, he is coming off of a torn Achilles that kept him out for all of last season. The ironic thing is that Crawford's injury likely led to the Cowboys signing Selvie, who turned out to be one of the biggest surprises on the team.
Now that they are both healthy, it will be interesting to see which player will emerge as the starter when the regular season begins.
Crawford has the size and strength that suggests he'd be a more dominant force against the run, while Selvie's length points to him being a better pass-rusher.
Crawford definitely has the most potential out of the possible SDE players. He is the youngest and has the best size out of them as well.
Tony Romo believes Crawford will be the breakout player for the Cowboys this year:
Tony Romo's breakthrough player this year for the Dallas Cowboys: Tyrone Crawford.— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 21, 2014
It has also been rumored that because of Crawford's size, he could be moved to defensive tackle in the nickel to provide an interior pass rush.
Furthermore, it appears that the Cowboys will rotate the defensive linemen throughout games. On 105.3 the Fan, Cowboys' Assistant Director of Player Personnel Will McClay (h/t Blogging the Boys) said:
It's all in how you put the pieces together to build that depth of the seven-, eight-man line that you'll need in a rotation during the season if you're going to play fast and do the things that we do.
Therefore, the "winner" of this training camp battle should be Tyrone Crawford. He has the upside, size and ability that is perfect for the strong-side position. However, Crawford and Selvie will likely rotate there throughout the game.
Furthermore, Crawford will likely slide down to defensive tackle with Selvie playing end in the nickel formation.
When it's all said and done, Crawford and Selvie will most likely have similar snap counts due to the defensive line rotation and Crawford playing some defensive tackle. However, Crawford should be the "starter" at SDE Week 1 of the regular season.