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What are Dallas' Free Agency Needs? Part One - Defensive Line

(This is the first in a series devoted to assessing the Cowboys needs heading into the free agency period and the 2005 draft.)

Although it is not official, it appears the Cowboys will start the 2005 season in a base 3-4 defensive scheme for the first time in team history. The change will entail some major shifts in player philosophy, since the 4-3 and 3-4 require different types of linemen.

The current version of the 4-3, which Dallas has run since 1989, is the "wide end" 4-3 developed by Jimmy Johnson at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Miami. Ideally, it calls for two stout defensive tackles who can tie up the offense's inner trio of guards and a center. Outside, it allows for lighter, speedier ends, since the strong side end lines up over the offense's tight end and the weakside end on the outside shoulder of the offense tackle. The Cowboys have drafted for speed from their ends. Tony Tolbert was a prototype in this system, a college outside linebacker who bulked up and put his hand down. Charles Haley, the most effective DE in the Johnson/Jones era, spent the early years of his career playing OLB for the 49ers.

The current Cowboys linemen are well suited to this scheme. The team played its biggest tackle, Leonardo Carson in guard/center gap. The other tackle, LaRoi Glover, is a speedy 282 lb. tackle. The reason to play Carson off the center is to command double-teams and leave Glover in one-on-one situations with guards, where his speed gives him an advantage. The starting ends, Greg Ellis and Marcellus Wiley, have weights in the 270s, and rely on speed and pursuit to make plays, thought Ellis was far more effective than Wiley last year.

While the old base 4-3 is a "one gap" system, that gives each linemen responsibility for one of the gaps on the offensive line on running plays, the 3-4 is a "two gap" system that gives the linemen increased duties. The nose tackle lines up directly over the center and is responsible for both guard/center gaps to either side of him. The ends typically line up directly over the offensive tackles and are responsible for the guard/tackle gaps to their inside and the tackle/tight end gaps to their outside. The linemen in this scheme have to be more stout against the run, absorb more double teams and keep linemen off the linebackers as much as possible. 3-4 nose tackles typically run in the 300 to 340 lb. range and ends in the 285-300 lb. range.

The shift to a 3-4 would make all the current Cowboys linemen poorer fits. Ellis, whose weight ranges anywhere from 271 to 277 to 281, depending on which source you consult, could succeed as a pass rushing end. When he was with the Giants, Parcells relied for many years on George Martin, a tall, rangy DE who excelled as a rusher. However, Ellis has already expressed misgivings about the system, saying he's not sure he could handle the increased double teams.

Glover's strength would allow him to play the nose at 282 lbs., and Parcells has remaked in the past that he thinks Glover could handle the job. However, moving him over center would negate his best quality, which is his speed rush. And even if these two succeeded, the Cowboys have no sure answer at the other end position. The release of Marcellus Wiley late Tuesday gives the Cowboys even fewer options.

The hole at LE has spurred a few rumors. One is that the Cowboys are interested in Denver DE Trevor Pryce, a 6'5", 295 lb. rusher. Pryce comes with a caveat; the Broncos are also contemplating changing to at 3-4 scheme and word in the Denver press is that the Broncos are not sure Pryce could move inside and hold up against the run. Two more likely reasons why Denver is shopping him are his enormous contract and his poor health in 2004. Pryce will be 30 before the season starts and his best days may be behind him.

There is also the lure of rookie-to-be Marcus Spears from LSU. Spears was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl and got a long interview from Bill Parcells. Like Pryce, Spears is a 295 lb. end who appears to be a good fit for the 3-4.

The most persistent D-line rumor has the Cowboys pursing Jets' DT Jason Ferguson. Ferguson played nose tackle for Parcells when he coached the Jets. Ferguson is coming off a career year and will be one of the more coveted defensive players when free agency starts on March 3rd.

Signing Ferguson could start a domino effect; if Ferguson is going to play the nose, where will Glover play? Glover has one of the biggest contracts on the team and it would not make sense to invest that much cap space in a part-time nose tackle, especially one who is so productive at one of the NFL's most-sought after positions.

Given the poor fits on the current D-line, keep a close eye on Dallas' early moves. The nose tackle position looks deep this free agency season and if one like Ferguson or the Bills' Pat Williams is signed in the first days of free agency, beware. Dallas could then begin to shop some of their more valuable 4-3 line assets.

-- Rafael Vela

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