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Rebuilding The Cowboys' Line: Deja Vu All Over Again

The Cowboys are going into the season with almost all their veteran defensive linemen gone, and a bunch of new players they expect to take up the load. That's exactly where the offensive line was in 2011, Jason Garrett's first full season as head coach.

Ben Gardner, one of the resources being put into the Dallas D line.
Ben Gardner, one of the resources being put into the Dallas D line.
Rick Yeatts

It is kind of scary. After a year in which a much injured defensive line was unable to get the job done with a parade of street free agents, the Dallas Cowboys are now going into the 2014 season with almost no experienced starters, and even fewer experienced backups.

Look at the projected depth chart for the rushmen that Joey developed earlier.

Closed End Nose Tackle Under Tackle Open End
G. Selvie T. McClain H. Melton D. Lawrence
B. Gardner N. Hayden T. Crawford J. Mincey
B. Bass K. Bishop A. Okoye C. Rayford

D. Coleman

The names break out like this:

Experienced starter from 2013: George Selvie, Nick Hayden

Experienced but not overly impressive backup from 2013: Caesar Rayford

Injured Dallas vet trying to come back: Ben Bass, Tyrone Crawford

Injured free agents trying to regain their old form: Henry Melton, Amobi Okoye

Free agents without ugly injury history: Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey

Rookies: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ben Gardner, Ken Bishop, Davon Coleman

That is a very little bit of a core to build on with a whole heaping bunch of ifs, ands, and maybes. Even though it was forced upon the team with the loss of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to salaries Dallas was unable or at least unwilling to pay, it is a scary prospect.

And one the team has been through fairly recently, only on the other side of the line of scrimmage. In 2011, after Jason Garrett won the full time head coaching job, the Cowboys basically tore down their offensive line and, with a brand new tackle named Tyron Smith, went with a line that was mostly untried. They jettisoned players like Marc Colombo, who were clearly on the downhill slide, and put their faith in a bunch of guys KD Drummond christened the "youglies".

(Note to all writers and posters: If you decide to go back and look at what you were writing about  the Cowboys a few years back, be brave. You are likely to wince at the things you said. A lot.)

It was a bit of a rocky road, and one that needed much more help, as the Cowboys have since acquired Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, but it was the same magnitude of change. The biggest difference between now and then was that many people questioned the need to jettison some of the players at the time to go with new guys. This year, no one really is arguing with the absolute and unavoidable necessity of what the Cowboys have done. Three of the names above were draftees, which means the Cowboys dedicated a full 1/3 of the picks they made this year to the defensive line.

That is not the only difference. Don't overlook that fact that Dallas has only signed seven free agents this year. Two are quarterbacks, one is a running back, and the other four are all defensive tackles or ends. The Cowboys are pouring resources into the scarred wasteland that was the defensive line by the end of the 2013 season. Additionally, two players they had hoped would play major roles on the line last year, Crawford and Bass, are hoping to be 100% this fall. And some dude named Tony Romo thinks one of them at least is going to be a bigger contributor than most realize.

"I think Tyrone Crawford is going to be a guy that will be shocking to a lot of people," Romo said on 105.3 The Fan [KRLD-FM]. "I think if we would have had him last year, it would have been a very different defensive unit. I think without people knowing it, we're getting a couple of first or second-round guys with him coming back from injury. I think he's the guy that stands out to me as the first guy that's going to be very, very difficult to deal with for offenses."

While the offensive line rebuild really took until 2013 to be considered a success with the arrival of Fredbeard, the hope is obviously that the D line can made something of a turnaround right away. There are some reasons to think it could happen:

  • Defensively, the team is a lot further down now than the offense was in '11. The aging vets then were not terrible, just clearly fading. The defensive line last year was just bad by the time the season wound down. Consider that only three of the many players the team cycled through are still on the roster today. Just competence would be a major step up for Dallas.
  • The team has poured considerably more resources into fixing things this year than they did in 2011. Arguably, what Dallas has done this offseason for the defense is about equivalent to the resources put into the O line in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. And that is for a unit with one less position to put on the field.
  • Crawford and Bass offer more of an "X" factor than the offensive line ever had. They are entering their third year with the team, but have hardly been seen on the field. I can see why Romo said what he did, assuming he is reading what he sees with Crawford correctly.
  • Marinelli is getting people that seem to fit his rushman template well. Given the different types of players needed in the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, I think the odds are better of getting a higher quality player, since a good percentage of teams would not see some players as fits, when they will work very well for the Cowboys (and the other teams that run a similar scheme).

It is all still to be determined. But I think this may explain the sense of calmness, the lack of any hint of panic on a team where all the coaches are basically working to keep their jobs this year. Some of the key figures, most notably the head coach, have been through something quite like this already and know that they have survived it.

Maybe they learned something in that experience, too. Perhaps that is why they put so much into the acquisition of DEs and DTs this year, realizing that there was no point in waiting. The effort has to be made, and sooner is better than later.

Perhaps it will go much better. We can hope.

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