One of the most underperforming positional units on the Dallas Cowboys in 2013 was the defensive line. A great deal of this can be attributed to the rash of injuries that plagued this position group throughout the year.
Going into the season, the Cowboys were thought to have a very strong starting defensive line. DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer gave them the makings of an elite defensive line. However, a season-ending injury to Spencer and the Ratliff injury saga left the defense without two of its most important players.
If that wasn't enough, the leader of the defensive line, Ware, battled through a myriad of injuries, which left him a shell of the player that the Cowboys were used to having.
All of the injuries caused players like Marvin Austin, Frank Kearse, Landon Cohen, Jerome Long and Corey Irvin to get significant snaps for the Cowboys defense. It is almost impossible to have an effective defense when playing with players of that caliber.
Fast-forward to the beginning of this offseason, and things weren't looking much better. The Cowboys lost both Ware and Hatcher to free agency, leaving the defensive line without its two most productive players.
To mitigate this, the Cowboys front office signed Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain to replace the lost production and also improved the depth of the unit.
Going into the NFL draft, everyone knew that the Cowboys needed help along the defensive line. When it concluded, they traded up to get the weak-side defensive end they coveted, DeMarcus Lawrence; selected Ken Bishop, a 1-technique defensive tackle who could push Nick Hayden and McClain; and picked a versatile reserve defensive end, Ben Gardner.
The Cowboys also dipped into undrafted free agency to look for some possible contributors by signing 3-technique defensive tackles Davon Coleman, Chris Whaley (who will most likely be placed on PUP and injured reserve because of prior injuries) and Dartwan Bush (who is listed as a defensive tackle but also may play some defensive end).
These additions and subtractions have left the Cowboys with 17 defensive linemen (16 if you take off Whaley for his likely stint on injured reserve) on the roster with likely only about eight to 10 of them making the final 53-man roster.
|Dallas Cowboys' Defensive Line Roster (in no particular order)|
|Strong-side DE||3-Technique DT||1-Technique DT||Weak-side DE|
|George Selvie||Henry Melton||Terrell McClain*||DeMarcus Lawrence|
|Tyrone Crawford*||Davon Coleman*||Nick Hayden||Jeremy Mincey|
|Anthony Spencer||Ben Bass*||Ken Bishop||Caesar Rayford|
|Ben Gardner*||Dartwan Bush*||Amobi Okoye*||Martez Wilson|
(The * denotes a player who is likely to play multiple positions along the defensive line)
Before we get into which players are likely to make up those eight to 10 slots, we must first look at what each position does so we can better project the player who best fits each role.
Responsibilities of Each Position Along the Defensive Line
The first thing we should delve into regarding the responsibilities of the defensive line is where each position lines up in its main fronts.
Commonly, you see analysts and writers refer to the 3- or 1-technique defensive tackle, but what does that actually mean?
The technique of a defensive lineman refers to where the player lines up on defense most of the time.
The numbers in the above picture illustrate the technique the defensive lineman would be if he lined up there. For example, a defensive tackle who plays on the outside shoulder of the guard would be the 3-technique. Also, the letters illustrate what gap that is. A "gap" is the space in between two offensive linemen.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's defense is a one-gap 4-3 defense, meaning that each defensive lineman is responsible for only one gap.
A 4-3 defense means four defensive linemen and three linebackers are on the field. This defense has two basic "fronts": the "over" and the "under."
You can tell it is an "over" front because of where the 3-technique is lined up. In this front, the 3-technique is lined up to the strong side of the offense (the side with a tight end).
In an "under" front, the 3-technique would be lined up to the weak side of the offense.
Now that we have a handle on where each position lines up, let's take a look at what each position is supposed to do.
Strong-Side Defensive End
The SDE or "power end" is usually the stronger, run-stopping defensive end who lines up between the tackle and the tight end. Since he is lined up to the strong side, he usually has to deal with double-teams on running plays. The SDE must be strong enough to maintain leverage against these attacks and still set the edge.
When rushing the passer, the power end oftentimes must disrupt the release of the tight end or fight through a chip block from the tight end. This again points to why the SDE must be very strong at the point of attack.
Weak-Side Defensive End
The WDE or "rush end" is usually the leaner and more athletic of the two defensive ends. The WDE usually lines up to the outside of the tackle or tight end to his side to minimize the chances of any double-teams and also give him a good angle to the quarterback.
Against the run, the WDE must set the edge for any runs to his side and protect the defense's backside against any reverses, options or misdirection plays.
The rush end's biggest responsibility is to pressure and sack the quarterback as much as possible. In any defense, the rush end should lead the team in sacks.
3-Technique Defensive Tackle
The 3-technique's job, whether it be a run or pass, is to create interior pressure and do damage to opposing backfields. The 3-technique must have great quickness to get into and through the B-gap as quickly as possible.
Since the 3-technique is lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard, it limits the number of double-teams opposing offenses can throw at him.
This means that the 3-technique will be one-on-one with one of the guards on most occasions.
1-Technique Defensive Tackle
The 1-technique is shaded to one of the shoulders of the center while being tasked with controlling the A-gap on the side that he is shaded to.
The 1-technique faces double-teams from the center and one of the guards on almost every play. Therefore, he needs to be incredibly strong and stout. Most of the time, the 1-technique's main responsibility is to control the A-gap against the run. Very rarely does a 1-technique give you any production rushing the passer.
Now that we know where each position lines up and what its responsibilities are, let's look at where each player fits on his position's depth chart and if he has a good chance to make the team or not.
Strong-Side Defensive End
George Selvie and Tyrone Crawford will take part in one of the most important training-camp position battles. With Anthony Spencer likely starting the season on PUP, the winner of this battle will likely be the starter come Week 1. (For my recent article on this competition, click here.)
Crawford is the biggest and strongest SDE on the roster. He has incredibly strong hands and utilizes pad level very well. Crawford is likely the best run defender among the SDEs as well.
However, he needs to improve his pass-rush ability from the outside. He needs to use a wider array of pass-rush moves and not just rely on his strength and power.
Crawford also has the ability to move inside to defensive tackle on passing situations. At defensive tackle, he will be able to utilize his quickness advantage over almost any guard he comes up against.
Selvie is easily the best pass-rusher at SDE. He is extremely long, with 34.5-inch arms that can help keep offensive linemen off of his body. Selvie has done, especially last year, a great job at utilizing this length to engage blockers, keep them off his body and then shed them to go and make the play. He doesn't have great quickness, though, which causes problems because he is not exceptionally strong.
Behind Selvie and Crawford, Ben Gardner is the only candidate for the secondary backup position.
Gardner is a versatile player who played a number of positions along the defensive line in college. He plays with incredible effort and never quits on a play. Gardner makes a great deal of hustle plays against the run and pass. Since he has short arms, he struggles to disengage quickly from long-armed offensive tackles. He does a great job of setting the edge against the run and rarely gives any ground.
While Crawford and Selvie are essentially guaranteed to make the 53-man roster, Gardner's future is not as clear. He'll likely be one of the last two or three defensive linemen to be on the roster. Gardner will have to prove in training camp that he has enough upside to warrant a spot on the final roster. If not, he will likely be relegated to the practice squad.
Weak-Side Defensive End
Highly touted second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence is the likely starter at WDE. Lawrence is a long player who utilizes every inch of his 33.75-inch arms. Check out his film above against Cleveland Browns second-round pick Joel Bitonio, and you will see a player who is extremely adept at rushing the passer.
Lawrence is extremely quick off the snap and usually plays on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage. He is a better-developed pass-rusher than what you normally see in college defensive ends. While his biggest attributes are his quickness and length, he plays with a surprising amount of power. This is usually because he is great at utilizing leverage by getting his pad level lower than his counterpart.
Even though he is only a rookie, Lawrence will be expected to bring six to 10 sacks along with a large amount of pressures this year.
Lawrence's backup will be former Jacksonville Jaguar Jeremy Mincey.
Mincey is a journeyman who has yet to elevate his role past a rotational defensive end at this point in his career.
In 352 snaps last year, PFF graded Mincey at plus-3.8. When you watch Mincey, you see a player who is much better defending the run than rushing the passer. At this point in his career, it is unlikely that he improves drastically in either of these categories. Mincey will likely be a valuable rotational WDE who is on the field more on running downs.
After Mincey and Lawrence, Martez Wilson and Caesar Rayford will try to prove worthy of one of the final spots on the roster. Wilson has played at outside linebacker for most of his career but has made the switch to defensive end while with the Cowboys. He is extremely quick but may not have the size necessary to make an impact at WDE.
Rayford had an incredible preseason with the Indianapolis Colts last year but did little when brought onto the Cowboys. He has great size and length for a defensive end but needs to sharpen up his technique if he wants to develop into a contributor.
It will be hard for either player to make the team at this point.
While Rayford is still eligible as a practice-squad candidate, Wilson is not. Both players will have to make an immense impact during the preseason if they hope to sneak onto the 53-man roster.
3-Technique Defensive Tackle
The biggest addition this offseason for the Cowboys was signing Melton to fill the void Hatcher left. This move was a bit of a risk because Melton is coming off a torn ACL that kept him out most of last year.
When healthy, Melton proved to be an elite 3-technique in the NFL. In 2012, he was disruptive against the pass and run. He creates a great deal of interior pressure for the defense and makes the job of his teammates much easier. When rushing the passer, Melton utilizes great strength and quickness to get through the B-gap and pressure the quarterback. However, it remains to be seen if he can return to this form following this serious of an injury.
In the case of an injury to Melton, the player who would likely replace him is Terrell McClain (more on him later). However, if Melton remains healthy, McClain will likely start at the 1-technique.
The first rotational 3-technique is Ben Bass. During the past two offseasons, he performed extremely well before being placed on injured reserve. Bass is a versatile player who can play the 3-technique and 1-technique along with strong-side defensive end. He is a high-effort player who is above average at defending the run and rushing the pass. The problem with Bass is that he doesn't excel at any one thing. If he can stay healthy, he will likely find his way onto the roster because of his versatility.
The two players who will likely battle for the final roster spot on the defensive line are Davon Coleman (for my in-depth look at Coleman, click here) and Dartwan Bush.
Coleman has a better shot at making the roster because of his upside. He showed in college that he has the ability to be a disruptive force at numerous positions along the defensive line. Coleman is extremely strong and quick, which is perfect at the 3-technique position. If he can commit better to his pass-rush moves and get his pad level consistently lower, then Coleman can become a very impactful player for the Cowboys.
Bush looks to be a pass-rush specialist in the interior defensive line. The ceiling for him is likely the practice squad.
1-Technique Defensive Tackle
The Cowboys signed McClain with the idea that he would be a very important player on the defensive line. With Melton not being able to practice this offseason while recovering from his injury, McClain has been very impressive at the 3-technique, according to David Moore of The Dallas Morning News. However, McClain will move back to 1-technique once Melton is ready to practice.
McClain has an attribute that the Cowboys were void of in 2013: He can be an impactful pass-rusher at the 1-technique. Because of this, he should easily beat out incumbent starter Nick Hayden.
Behind McClain, things get a little harder to predict. With Amobi Okoye likely starting the season on PUP, Hayden and Ken Bishop will compete to be the reserve 1-technique.
Hayden and Bishop have very similar skill sets. Both are not very proficient at rushing the passer while specializing in taking on double-teams and stopping the run.
Hayden has an advantage in experience, but Bishop is the younger and cheaper option. If two players are similar, the tiebreaker is usually which player is cheaper or which player has higher upside. In this case, Bishop has the edge in each facet.
For Hayden to make the team, he will have to prove that he is a significantly better option than Bishop. However, if you watch Hayden's film from last season, you notice that is not very likely.
Who Will Make the Team?
|Projected Depth Chart on the Defensive Line|
|Strong-Side DE||3-Technique DT||1-Technique DT||Weak-Side DE|
|Starter||Tyrone Crawford||Henry Melton||Terrell McClain||DeMarcus Lawrence|
|Primary Backup||George Selvie||Ben Bass||Ken Bishop||Jeremy Mincey|
|Secondary Backup||Ben Gardner||Davon Coleman|
|PUP||Anthony Spencer||Chris Whaley||Amobi Okoye|
(The players left off the depth chart are those that I believe won't make the team or practice squad.)
As you can see, I believe the Cowboys will keep 10 defensive linemen on the final 53-man roster. This would be so that Dallas can spread around the snap distribution on the defensive line. On game day, the Cowboys should try to use a rotation much in the same vein as the Seattle Seahawks did in 2013.
This would allow the defensive linemen to stay fresh late into games so that they can play their best on each and every play. Blogging the Boys' Joey Ickes makes a great point in regard to this idea:
The thought is every single snap the Cowboys will have multiple players who can bring pressure. Is there anyone who strikes fear into a defense the way DeMarcus Ware did for so many years? Likely not, but there are multiple guys at each spot that can get after the passer, and with a limited number of snaps at max effort, they should be able to generate some sort of disturbance to quarterbacks.
A notable name missing on my depth chart is the player who played the most snaps for the Cowboys defensive line in 2013, per Pro Football Focus: Nick Hayden.
Even though Hayden played most of the snaps, he did not play at even an average level. McClain is a better player, and Bishop is younger, cheaper and more athletic than Hayden, which should give them the edge at the 1-technique.
Anthony Spencer should start the season on PUP as he recovers from the micro-fracture knee surgery from last season.
Lawrence, Melton, McClain, Selvie, Crawford and Mincey (barring injury) are locks to make the roster at this point. That means the last four spots will be a contested throughout training camp.
The theme of the last four players is that they are all young, cheap and have high upside. Those four players are Bass, Coleman, Bishop and Gardner. Each one has the ability to develop into a starting-caliber player in the future.
Absent of the production from elite players like Ware and Hatcher, the Cowboys will have to rely on multiple players across numerous positions to make up for that production.
If the Cowboys can find a rotation that jells properly, then it is possible that you see an improvement in the defensive-line play, even with the losses of Ware and Hatcher.