Things were rather straightforward in the first five installments of my survey of the Dallas Cowboys roster and where things stand after the minicamp. In case you missed them, here are links to them all:
The one thing they all have in common should be quickly evident and not require any Robert Langdon-type skills to decode: They are all about the offense. Or, to look at it another way, they are not about the defense. That makes things a lot less chaotic, because all but one of the offensive starters is pretty much settled, and that last one is expected to be a two player contest to find out who is the starting left guard. Outside of that, it is just sorting out depth, with the biggest question still being, what in the world is going on in Kyle Orton's head?
On defense, we know for certain . . . um . . . oh, yeah, Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware, and Jason Hatcher are all gone. Outside of that, pretty much nothing is settled, particularly up front with the defensive linemen, Rod Marinelli's Rushmen.
At the moment, no one is the clearcut leader for a starting job on the D line. With the Rushmen, that is not quite as important since the idea is to send them in waves. Two-deep is the key here. But even so, there are nothing but questions to be answered. The Cowboys will probably carry eight to ten linemen on the defense, with my bet being they will go heavy. As training camp looms nearer (report date is July 22, or three weeks - it is getting close), there are sixteen defensive ends and tackles on the roster. More than half are new faces. Here is how things stack up.
HOLDOVERS. The seven players who were on the roster at the end of the 2013 season that were deemed worthy of another shot this year.
The guy who blossomed: George Selvie was the brightest spot for the Cowboys in 2013. Filling in at LDE, he had his career high with seven sacks. He did get slowed a bit as the year went on and he was no longer as much of an unexpected factor for the other teams to deal with, but you have to feel he is a lock to be the starter. Except for the guy he replaced. And a bunch of promising new guys.
The wounded star: Selvie was playing in relief of Anthony Spencer, who wound up missing all but one (ineffectual) game and has since had microfracture surgery on his knee. Spencer is a real wild card for this season. If he were to come back with anywhere near the player he was in 2011 and 2012, he could be a huge boost to the defense. His leadership on the field would be very valuable as well. But no one knows what is going to happen. The most likely scenario, at least judging by what has been said in the media, is for him to come back sometime after the sixth week of the season after a stint on the physically unable to perform list.
Spencer may never see the field again. Microfractures are not easy to overcome. He could come into camp and be able to compete from the start. We just don't know.
The lunchpail guy: Nick Hayden was out of football in 2012, then was picked up by Dallas as a camp body. After all, defensive line was publicly proclaimed by no less a figure than the team owner and general manager to be a strength of the team.
One day, maybe, we'll quit bringing that up as a glaring example of how said owner and general manager should think more carefully before talking. After the line was gutted by various injuries, Hayden would up becoming the starting 1-technique DT, and played more snaps than any other lineman. The Cowboys liked the job he did, despite him being harshly criticized by some sources as being very poor at his position. Figure he has a head start, but it may be hard for him to hang on to the number one spot.
The returning injured: Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass were both a big part of the plans for the rushmen last season - until both were lost for the year before training camp was even over. Now both are back, and expected to be a part of the line.
Where they will each play is pretty much yet to be determined. Crawford saw work at both end and tackle. Bass was, I believe, a bit limited in the OTAs and minicamp, but is also seen as having some position flex. Again just going from memory, I think he could be looked at for either the 1- or 3-tech, and he might also be used at the LDE spot.
Longer shots: Caesar Rayford and Martez Wilson both saw some time on the roster in 2013. Although neither made much of a splash on the field, they both were among the very few players out of the long, long list of defensive linemen that Dallas used last season to get an invitation back. It will be an uphill struggle for both DEs.
THE FREE AGENTS. The Cowboys were very judicious with their spending in free agency - of necessity. Of the money they did spend, a lot went to helping here.
The big name: Henry Melton was an unquestioned star under Rod Marinelli with the Chicago Bears before his injury. The hope is that he will be that player again. If he is, he is the starting 3-technique. But that is a big if, and he has not seen the field yet.
The surprise: From the start of OTAs, Terrell McClain jumped out as one of the best players on defense. Originally signed primarily to play as a 1-tech tackle, he spent most of his time filling in for Melton at the 3. And he excelled. That position flex is always good. The way he was getting after it is better.
Two more injured: Jeremy Mincey and Amobi Okoye were limited by injury. Okoye was a late pickup, and the team may be looking to stash him on IR for next season. Mincey was projected as the leading candidate to be the starting RDE with the loss of Ware. But someone else is causing a re-examination of that plan.
THE ROOKIES. Dallas drafted two rushmen, one very early, and signed three more as UDFAs. One is almost certain to sit out a year with injury, representing a bet for the future, but the rest look to be in the thick of things.
The emerging star: DeMarcus Lawrence was such a priority for the Cowboys that they traded up to get him. And so far, he has done a very good job of living up to the expectations. With Mincey limited, Lawrence grabbed the RDE job and impressed people. Like Bryan Broaddus:
The more [Lawrence] worked, the better he played and to the point that in my view, as much as we were told that Mincey would most likely be the starter opening day against the 49ers, I would not discount Lawrence taking that job from him at some point in time while this team is in Oxnard. It’s not that Mincey is that poor of an opponent but Lawrence just has too much talent not to give him serious consideration for the position.
The emerging legend: Ben Gardner is getting more love from the fans than any seventh-rounder I can remember. Given that he was held back a little after he was a little hurt, his reputation seems a bit overblown. But I hope he lives up to it.
Making the most of the opportunity: Ken Bishop and Davon Coleman got extra snaps because of other players not being available, and they both received some good notices. If they don't make the roster, both have a good shot at the practice squad, since it seems likely Dallas will want at least one spare DL in light of what happened last year.
LIkely to go on IR: Chris Whaley is not expected to be able to play this season. From the beginning, this looked like a bet for the future.
If that all seems very unspecific and murky, it is because that is exactly the situation. Players were being moved around and used in different positions. Some that are now listed at DE are shown in other sources as LBs, and similar uncertainty can be found between tackles and ends. Several sat out all or part of the OTAs and minicamp. Right now, any depth chart (like the one OCC put together for the defense) is largely guesswork and personal preference. There is just a lot we do not know, and will not find out until training camp and the preseason are well under way. The one good thing is that the Cowboys look to have a lot more player with more talent than they had last season. Now they just need to keep enough of them healthy.