Life used to be simple in a 3-4 defense. The fat guy was the nose tackle, the two other big guys were the defensive ends.
But for Cowboys fans, that changed with the arrival of Jay Ratliff. Suddenly, the guy in the middle wasn't the fat guy anymore. At a svelte 293 pounds, Ratliff looked nothing like the more traditional 330+ pound nose tackles, often weighing less than the two defensive ends he was playing next to in his time in Dallas. But despite what many perceived as a 40-pound disadvantage, Ratliff made four Pro Bowls during his stint as a Cowboy.
Today, the Cowboys find themselves in 4-3 defense, and things are getting even murkier weight-wise. Because it used to be that you had two big guys who were the defensive tackles and charged with plugging the middle, and you had two more athletic guys who were the defensive ends and charged with rushing the passer. But with today's premium on pass rushing, everybody is tasked with rushing the passer, and the distinction between edge defender and interior defender is beginning to blur.
Last year, the Seahawks had Red Bryant playing defensive end at 323 pounds, while Tony McDaniel played defensive tackle at a significantly less chunky 305 pounds. And as we look at this year's crop of defensive linemen in the draft, the distinctions get blurred even more as we talk about 1-techniques and 3-techniques and about guys who may be too light, others who may be too heavy, and others yet again who may be unsuited altogether for a 4-3 defense because they don't weigh enough.
So borrowing an idea from SB Nation's Atlanta Falcons blog The Falcoholic, let's take a look at the weight of the starting defensive linemen on all sixteen 4-3 teams in the league. For this exercise, we'll use the depth charts at ourlads.com, which I've usually found to be pretty accurate, or as accurate as they can be in the offseason. The table below summarizes the weight for each team. If you want to see what the weight for 3-4 teams looks like, check out the post on the Falcoholic.
Weight of 4-3 defensive lines, 2014 (click column header to sort)
Projecting a defensive line for the 2014 Cowboys is not an easy undertaking. For this exercise, I have the Cowboys with a defensive line consisting of George Selvie (270), Terrell McClain (293), Henry Melton (295) and Jeremy Mincey (265). And while I used the weights from ourlads.com for all other teams, the weight for the Cowboys players are taken from dallascowboys.com. That quartet gives the Cowboys the lightest defensive line in the league.
And that overall weight may have been more important in the past than it is today. It used to be that especially the defensive tackles needed to stop the run, take on double teams and anchor to hold their ground. But today, a quality defensive tackle needs to be able to collapse the pocket and rush the passer. They can do this with brute strength and explosion to overpower their opponents or they can do it using their quickness - both lateral and vertical - to get off the snap and squeeze through gaps. What they can't do anymore is just lumber around and stop the run.
Interior pass rushers are becoming more and more important, especially as offenses are increasingly adapting to the more traditional outside edge rushers.
Take the Manning brothers: Among the many gifts the one brother has and the few gifts the other has, the ability to scramble is a gift neither was given. Yet Peyton Manning leads all active QBs with a sack percentage of 3.1%, and Eli is not far behind, ranking sixth with 4.8% - and this has less to do with their offensive lines than you may think. Instead, it has much more to do with the fact that while neither is a good scrambler, both are very good "shufflers", for lack of a better term. Sometimes all it takes is two small steps up or two small steps to the side to avoid the pass rush - as long as the pocket holds. Eli and Peyton both do this really well.
If all a QB has to do to avoid the pass rush is step up in the pocket, and you can't bring pressure up the middle, then you've got a pass rushing problem.
And now back to our weight rankings: Of the 32 defensive ends in the table above exactly half are 270 pounds or heavier, and that is probably the prototypical weight for a defensive end in a 4-3 defense. That's not saying that smaller guys can't get the job done, but 250 is probably as low as you'd go at defensive end.
Bill Parcells once explained that teams have certain criteria they look for in every position, as there is a certain combination of physical measurables that has proven successful in the NFL, and deviating from that success model doesn't have high chances of success.
At defensive tackle, that model may be changing before our very eyes, as teams look for pass rushing defensive tackles more than just pure run-stuffers. And in the table above, 24 of the 32 defensive tackles already weigh less than 310 pounds. Are the Cowboys too light at 293 and 295? Who knows.
But as you look towards the defensive tackles the Cowboys could be interested in the draft, neither Aaron Donald (285) nor Timmy Jernigan (299) are going to move the Cowboys into a different weight class, and neither will guys already on the roster like Tyrone Crawford (284) or Ben Bass (294), though the latter two may give the Cowboys more heft if they were to play outside.
In any case, the Cowboys will likely enter the season with a comparatively light defensive line. Hopefully, that will allow them to be quick off the snap and get pressure on the QB frequently, instead of getting pushed back or aside by bigger and heavier offensive linemen.