The big question for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 is whether their defense can improve on the epic, dismal performance of 2013. The biggest issue for the defense is the line (although the linebackers and secondary certainly have their own problems). Last season, injuries decimated the line, and two of the top pass rushers from that team, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, are no longer with the Cowboys as the team made a financial decision to part ways with them.
Their loss, combined with continuing injury concerns, leaves the Cowboys having to figure out not just who their best players are to put on the field, but who is available. It is already something they have to deal with for the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers. It appears to be something that could easily be a weekly process, since there are already multiple D linemen who are recovering from injury. Some are definitely out, others are questionable.
Here is the full list of rushmen currently with the Cowboys, with their numbers.
|Defensive Tackles||Defensive Ends|
|66 Ken Bishop||58 Jack Crawford|
|60 Davon Coleman||98 Tyrone Crawford|
|96 Nick Hayden||95 Lavar Edwards|
|97 Terrell McClain||92 Jeremy Mincey|
|69 Henry Melton||99 George Selvie|
|93 Anthony Spencer|
|51 Kyle Wilber *|
|63 Ben Gardner (DE)||79 Kenneth Boatright (DE)|
|90 DeMarcus Lawrence (DE)||46 Michael Sam (DE)|
|76 Amobi Okoye (DT)|
|64 Chris Whaley (DT)|
* LB Kyle Wilber saw some action as a defensive end in the preseason, but is officially a linebacker.
The yellow highlight is for players on the active roster that are recovering from injury. Spencer is the only player currently listed by the team as out for the 49ers game, but T. McClain is listed as questionable. Selvie told reporters today that he is going to play.
So how do the available players stack up? OCC has a post up on the "official" depth chart, but as he cautions, it is not really all that "official".
The depth chart probably originates somewhere in the PR department, and we're lucky if it wasn't some intern who threw this together.
A source that might be more reliable is DallasCowboys.com writer and former scout Bryan Broaddus, who put his own depth chart up on Twitter, plus who he thinks starts at end (now you see why I included the numbers).
Further complicating things are conflicting reports on T. McClain. According to a report from the Dallas Morning News, he was a full participant in practice on Friday, which was cited as a reason he was likely to play. However, McClain stated earlier in the week he was not going to, which Dave Halprin used as the source for stating he would be out in his article on the injury report. Mike Fisher, Cowboys beat writer, also said that (succinctly).
This reinforces Broaddus' probable lineup of Mincey/Melton/Hayden/Selvie (left to right). He is clearly taking the injuries into account in his first and second string lineups, relegating Spencer and T. McClain to his third line. That means the most likely starting lineup consists of a player, Melton, who did not play in any preseason games, one who missed a lot of recent practice time in Selvie, a 30-year-old who is trying to revive his career (Mincey), and Hayden, the Golden Cock himself, who was rated by PFF as one of the worst DTs in the league last year. (But I do find myself admiring the man's style.)
The team is going to have to see how much stamina Melton has. Coleman was reported to have gotten heavy work to be able to take the bulk of the snaps if Melton has to be worked in slowly, but that is not encouraging given how much the team was expecting Melton to contribute in collapsing pockets. As for the other probable starters, we can only hope they look better in real games than they did during the preseason.
There is the ongoing hope that things will improve. Spencer is getting closer to practicing, and the team will certainly move him to the game day active roster as soon as they think he can contribute. T. McClain is likely going to be back in a week or two. If Melton is limited in this game, his workload will increase as he gets into better condition. Lawrence, who is designated for return from IR in six weeks, is hoped to be able to play around the eighth game or so (although it may take longer for him to be productive, given the layoff). And if the edge rush is faltering, both Boatright and Sam offer quick ways to at least try to get better with promotion from the practice squad, plus Wilber is still an option as well unless he is needed to stick with his primary role of SAM linebacker.
Obviously, this will be a changing cast, perhaps every week. The one ray of hope is that, unlike last season, the new faces coming in over time may actually be better than the ones they replace, unlike last season when the players being brought in were getting what amounted to tryouts during NFL games. It should go better this time.
If not, it will be hard for the Cowboys to even match the now traditional 8-8 record.