There was more than a little consternation among the Dallas Cowboys' fan base when the team did not draft any defensive linemen, or pick up any as UDFAs. It emerged that after Monte Kiffin came in to transition the team back to the 4-3, he had looked over the personnel already in hand for his crew of rushmen and decided that he had what he needed.
Who am I to argue with the Yoda of in your face, smash-mouth, grab 'em by the nose and kick 'em in the ass defense?
And there is good reason to agree with Kiffin. There are currently thirteen defensive linemen on the Cowboys' roster, not counting Josh Brent, who is not expected to be available this year due to the charges stemming from his intoxicated manslaughter case. The team will most likely carry eight to ten defensive tackles and ends on the final roster. They already are quite familiar with most of the names, and have some newcomers to deal with.
Here is my take on who is likely to make the cut, and who probably won't.
The team is going to be building the line on six returning veterans, all of whom were starters or key players last year in the 3-4.
Defensive end: Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Ware
Defensive tackle: Tyrone Crawford, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, Jay Ratliff
For these six, barring that "I" word that I hate to even think about, making the team is assumed. However, on an NFL roster, there is never a guarantee. Jay Ratliff has been plagued by that nasty injury thing (just typing that makes me shudder), and if his problems should flare up again, it is possible he might elect or be forced into retirement. I do think this is unlikely and something he is going to do everything he can to avoid, but there is a small chance it could come about.
Sean Lissemore is the one player on this list that might be vulnerable to losing his spot to someone else, but it would take at least two of the other contenders, and more likely three or four, to have a phenomenal camp, or for Lissy to undergo a Doug Free style regression. I don't see this as much more likely than a sudden Ratliff retirement, however. I just want to cover all the contingencies, no matter how unlikely.
The main contenders.
Defensive end: Kyle Wilber
Wilberforce has been labeled as a backup for the RDE position already. At the moment, everyone else on the line is designated as a tackle on the roster at the mothership, although that is not necessarily accurate, since it still reflects the old 3-4 assignments. While I would expect the team to be looking for at least one more player who can play DE, Wilber has the additional advantages of being a draft pick of the team and having some playing time as an OLB in the 3-4. Being a draft pick should not be the reason a team keeps a player, but there is not much question that coaches are loathe to admit that they made a mistake in the draft (see: Bobby Carpenter) and if it should come down to a close call, Wilber will get the nod. Plus, experience never hurts.
Defensive tackles: Ben Bass, Rob Callaway, Brian Price
Bass was brought up from the practice squad for two games last year, so he has the experience factor and a year of familiarity with the team. Perhaps this is a small advantage, but any little bit helps. He is also a candidate for the defensive end backup job, with experience at the position in college. That could be a major benefit for him, since he could be a swing DE - DT. Multiplicity is good, especially when your head coach is Jason Garrett.
Callaway, on the other hand, was a nose tackle in the 3-4, which makes him a contender for the 1 technique in the 4-3. He was also given a three year extension by the Cowboys, which would indicate that they saw something they liked during his season with the practice squad.
Price is far and away the most interesting story of the entire DL group. Returning from a pelvic injury that makes me cringe just thinking about it, he is a former member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who drafted him in the second round in 2010. Although he is a bit short at 6-1, that has never been much of a factor. However, one problem he does seem to have is his temper. I have seen him compared to Ndamukong Suh in that respect, and I have been told the team is taking some steps in the offseason to help him get that under control. They are very interested in him and I was informed that Kiffin thinks Price is a better player than a certain Sharrif Floyd will be.
Defensive end: Ikponmwosa Igbinosun
Ike, as we will all call him, is someone who you almost wish would make the team just to hear announcers struggle with his name. Formerly with the Pittsburgh Steelers, there is no real performance history to go on.
Defensive tackle: Nick Hayden, Monte Taylor
Hayden was with the Cincinnati Bengals for two years, and accumulated 53 tackles and two sacks in his time there. His biggest issue is that he was cut by the Bengals.
Taylor is another player who has no stats. And his 2012 season was spent with the Philadelphia Eagles, but we won't hold that against him.
Those are the players who will be fighting to make the team. The real question, at least in my mind, is who will actually make the final 53. My forecast: The core six will keep their jobs. The next most likely players to make the squad, in order, are Wilber, Price, Bass and Callaway. For the last couple of names, it comes down to how many linemen the team carries.
Whoever does wind up making the cut, I look forward to seeing them rush the quarterback. Every. Down.