Fixing The Dallas Defensive Line: It's Not Just About The Draft

Who may return this fall? - Ronald Martinez

If you are waiting with very little patience for the NFL Draft so the Cowboys can finally do something to help fix the manifold issues on the defensive line, you might want to pay attention to what happens before then. There is a lot the team can do long before the NFL Christmas comes around.

I will admit to being one of the huge Aaron Donald fans here at Blogging The Boys. I see him as a nearly perfect Rod Marinelli rushman, and I would be in full out celebration mode if he gets picked by the Dallas Cowboys. But his stock has been shooting up on every draft board on the internet, and unfortunately for fans of the Star, the Chicago Bears have the pick two spots earlier. Donald would fit them just as nicely.

I don't think the Cowboys have to have him, anyway. Oh, they could certainly use him, but there are other things the team should do before the draft. After all, as rabblerousr pointed out in his latest installment on grading the front office, the strategy of the team is to have the holes filled before the draft ever starts. This is the quote from Jason Garrett he used:

In a perfect world, what you want to do is to go into the draft without needs. I think you tend to draft worse when you say, "I think we need to draft this position or that position."...In an ideal situation you want to address your needs prior to the draft. Hard to do that, but you're trying to do that so you can draft as purely as possible.

The Cowboys have two avenues to pursue to address that. First is to address as much as they can internally. There are three players who the team has a chance to work out contract issues with: Free agents Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher, and currently overpriced DeMarcus Ware. Indications are that the team would like to keep all three if the price is right.

Spencer may be the most easily accomplished, since he is coming off the microfracture injury to his knee and may see very little interest from other teams. This would not be a certain solution, since he would have to prove that he is ready to play again, but a low-cost deal would give the team a possible option at end. Hatcher is the most likely to go, since he is coming off the best year of his career and may well get offers Dallas cannot afford to match. Dave Halprin covered the contract dilemma with Ware already. That is up in the air for now, but we may find something out in the near future, since the team has opened negotiations.

Just taking a stab at things, I think the possibilities for the team, in declining order of likelihood, are: Keep two of the three, keep one of the three, keep all of them, and lose them all.

Regardless of how things work out with those players, Dallas does have some linemen returning. George Selvie played well last year, and Nick Hayden played a lot. Both are likely to have some role in the rotation, although the team would probably prefer they both get to step to a backup role. The team also is hoping for contributions from Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass, and Crawford, for one, is quite ready to get on the field.

There are other players currently under contract that the team will be evaluating, like Frank Kearse and Caesar Rayford, but it will likely be training camp before the team even has a slight idea of how much they can contribute.

While this represents some possibilities, it also is rife with uncertainty. The Cowboys will likely need to dip into the free agent market to try and shore things up before the draft. Keeping Garrett's philosophy as stated above in mind, the team is going to be looking for what rabblerousr in his article on free agency called "bridge" players. These are players you aren't looking to buy as much as lease for a season or two. Since the goal is to cover things for a short period of time, you can look at more marginal, and much more affordable, players than you could if you were trying to find the starter for the next five years.

I found a list of the top free agents on the market at NFL.com, and thought I would use it as a resource to identify some players that may fit the bill for the Cowboys. I skipped difference makers and impact starters, which takes us past the top 24 names right off the bat, just because of cost considerations. Here are the capsules from that article of defensive linemen that may fit the bill for Dallas, if the price is right. Some of these will likely be out of the Cowboys price range, especially the ones towards the top (I am including the number to designate where they rank overall on the list of 101 names), but here we should be rooting for a soft market that will depress the money being offered. And the further down the list you go, the more likely that these may be some players that Dallas may be able to afford. (I've filtered this a bit to leave out players that seem to not fit the Dallas approach, i.e., no run-stopping specialists here.)

30) Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings: Don't discount Allen's endurance. He's not the pass rusher he once was, but he can still credibly play more snaps than practically any other player.

39) Justin Tuck, DE, New York Giants: After two straight down years, Tuck was strong against the run and rushing the passer in 2013. Don't be surprised if he leaves New York.

55) Willie Young, DE, Detroit Lions: Young pass rushers that have shown flashes of excellence are candidates to get big money on the open market.

56) Pat Sims, DT Oakland Raiders: There are games he completely blows up the opposing offensive line, and games he disappears quietly.

62) Shaun Phillips, DE, Denver Broncos: He was surprisingly effective last season, but will be a target for a short-term deal because he turns 33 in May.

77) Antonio Smith, DE, Houston Texans: An excellent free-agent acquisition back in 2009, Smith has been a durable, scheme-versatile pass rusher. On the downside, he turns 33 years old early next season.

78) Kevin Williams, DT, Minnesota Vikings: The six-time Pro Bowl selection could still help teams out as a rotational player.

82) Clinton McDonald, DT, Seattle Seahawks: A key cog in Seattle's defensive line rotation, McDonald is an effective -- if undersized -- pass rusher.

92) Alex Carrington, DE, Buffalo Bills: Big, scheme-versatile pass rushers aren't easy to find.

100) Earl Mitchell, DT, Houston Texans: A 17-game starter over the past two seasons, Mitchell is better suited to a 4-3 scheme.

There is a list of the better free agent options, and of course there are others out there that might be in play.

The real point here is that Dallas could have potential solutions to the problems on the defensive line long before the draft comes up. Remember 2012, when the team needed guards? Instead of going after them in the draft, Dallas signed Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. While it turns out they only had half the solution in them (although Ronald Leary was also signed after the draft, and wound up replacing Livings), this is what I expect the Cowboys to do this year on the defensive line. The team has already cleared up the biggest cap issues, and has plenty of ammunition left to come up with enough money for reasonably priced alternatives.

So don't get all locked into draft success being determined by how many defensive linemen are taken by the Cowboys. That is not how they play this game. Watch what happens in the next two months with contract negotiations and free agent acquisitions. That may have much more to do with who plays this fall as a Rod Marinelli rushman than the draft.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB
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