Cowboys Defensive Line: Finding The Pieces

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

With the loss of so many defensive linemen this season, Dallas has had to revert to finding replacement players anywhere they can, much the same as they were forced to do in 2012. But this year, they seem to be finding some better players - although it takes a lot of trying and rejecting.

I feel like we need a shorthand reference here. We have cussed and discussed the losses along the defensive line so much here, I want to assume everyone knows what we are talking about, but you never know when someone is dropping in for the first time. So let me just quickly list the names:

Lost prior to the start of the season: Tyrone Crawford, Ben Bass

Never played a down before abandoning team in a fit of pique: Jay Ratliff

Lost to injured reserve two games into season: Anthony Spencer

Out midseason for first missed games of career, but expected back shortly: DeMarcus Ware

So, the team is currently down two key backups and three Pro Bowl starters. (Not to say that is an excuse, just stating the facts.) This has left the team, and particularly Rod Marinelli and the scouting department, with a significant task: Rebuild the Rushmen on which Monte Kiffin's defense is based.

And just any street body will not work. This is not plugging one hole where more talented and experienced players beside the new guy can cover for a weak spot. Dallas went into the Minnesota Vikings game with three quarters of the starters they had expected to use this season out. And by the end of the game, the last starter (and possbile Pro Bowl candidate with his play this season), Jason Hatcher, was on the sidelines.

To be a useful player for Kiffin and Marinelli, one has to have certain characteristics. The primary ones seem to be a quick and powerful burst off the line, and a non-stop motor.

So as soon as the injuries started piling up (day one of training camp, folks), the team started bringing in possible replacements. According to an article at DallasCowboys.com, the count is up to sixteen defensive linemen that have taken a snap in a game for the Cowboys.

It takes a lot of effort and searching to find a player that can step in to play adequately and show some potential for growth. This is the NFL, obviously, and all the truly excellent players are already under contract with other teams. I saw something driving from home that reminded me of what Marinelli is trying to do.

Rock_fence_medium

We've all seen things like this. A wall or pillar built out of natural stones. Rough pieces that are selected and fit together to make a pattern. The pattern is to some degree dictated by the pieces you have, and fits are not always perfect. And this one is a bit rough, not fitting together as well as one might wish.

To get something like this to work, you have to go through a lot of different stones. And sometimes you try one, and discard it. That is what has happened with players like David Carter, Jerome Long, Jason Vega, Landon Cohen, and the just released Marvin Austin. They got their chance, the team found someone who looks like a better fit, and their moment of glory was over.

But now the team is starting to find some fits. From the beginning, George Selvie has looked very good filling in at LDE for Anthony Spencer. He has six quarterback sacks, and leads the team in QB hits and hurries according to the compulsive record keepers at Pro Football Focus. He is also third on the team in downs played, behind only Hatcher and the D line leader in snaps, Nick Hayden. He has moved into the green in PFF's rating system with a season total of +2.2 after his outstanding game against the Vikings with the strip sack that led to Hayden's touchdown recovery.

Hayden is an interesting story. The team has a lot of faith in him, as evidenced by his 500 downs played. Only Sean Lee, Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Barry Church have been on the field for more plays defensively. Yet PFF hates his play. They grade him at -15.6 for the season, which shows him rated as the 67th DT/NT in the league - out of 67. But nobody has shown the team more, and the coaches certainly do not talk like he is terrible.

Many of the players the Cowboys have tried have signed with the team midweek and gone right onto the field that Sunday. And none have done so more effectively than the latest signee, Everette Brown. He was part of the rotation with Kyle Wilber to substitute for Ware, and Wilber might want to spend some extra time in the weight room and on film study, because Brown outplayed him. After one game, in which he played 31 downs, he is now the third highest graded D lineman for Dallas under PFF's cumulative system, with +3.3. One sack, one QB hit and four hurries were part of his immediate impact. That is six plays out of 31, or 19% of the time he was on the field, from a guy who is no doubt still getting his suitcases unpacked.

Another player who is coming on strong and has only been with the team a short while (he signed with the team on October 15th) is Jarius Wynn. He is coming up fast in his weekly grades, from a -2.0 in his first game against the Philadelphia Eagles to a +0.5 against Minnesota. More importantly, Wynn is listed on the team roster at DallasCowboys.com as an end, but he is helping fill in at tackle, where the Cowboys are thinner with Selvie and Brown coming on strong at end.

The other rocks in this wall are Drake Nevis and Caesar Rayford, with Edgar Jones possibly rejoining the team off IR for the Green Bay Packers game. Perhaps it is not surprising that the team is beginning to find some better fits for the pattern. Four of the players still on the roster are former draft picks. Selvie was a seventh-rounder, Wynn a sixth, Nevis a third, and Brown was taken in the second. Marinelli has a reputation for motivating players and getting the most out of them, and he may be living up to it with this bunch.

And they are starting to develop a little attitude about themselves, as one of them has put out on Twitter. This looks like a good thing.

It has been a hard task to build this line, and it probably is not quite over. But the last few additions have made it stronger. If this line can hold together and continue to improve, then this will be a job well done.

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