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Cowboys 2015 Draft: Should Dallas Avoid Defensive Line In The First Round?

Conventional wisdom says defensive ends and tackles should be a top priority for the Cowboys in the first round. But here, we don't always see conventional wisdom as all that wise.

Is the first round really a good place to get defensive linemen?
Is the first round really a good place to get defensive linemen?
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys need more pass rush. That is hard to argue with after the 2014 season ended when a gimpy Aaron Rodgers had far too much time for most of the game to find his receivers and helped end the season, with only a small assist from the NFL rule book. Fans are eagerly scouring scouting reports and draft rankings to find defensive ends and tackles that might make it to the 27th pick the Cowboys hold.

If you have read the articles here at BTB, especially the work of the inimitable OCC, you may have picked up on something: Drafting a defensive lineman in the first round may not be as good an idea as many think. It actually may be a move that the team should strive to avoid.

I really started mulling this over when my friend and fellow fan Royce Brown sent me an e-mail that touched on this.

I don't understand this pounding of the table to spend the first three or four draft picks on a defensive end or tackle, which are only going to be part time players. Wouldn't it be better to get that talent in players that will play 50 to 70 snaps a game rather than 30 to 35?

Royce was looking at a couple of OCC's posts. He had the same point about both defensive line positions.

2015 NFL Draft: What Can You Expect From A Rookie Pass Rusher? - Blogging The Boys

Observation # 1: You've got to be really lucky to draft a first- or second round pass rusher who'll become an immediate starter.

If you go through the list of rookie pass rushers above, you can't help but marvel at the quality of the 2011 draft class. Of the nine pass rushers drafted in the first two rounds, five were starters in their rookie season. For comparison, of the 21 pass rushers drafted since, only two started more than 8 games in their rookie season. That's a hit rate of barely 10%.

2015 NFL Draft: What Can You Expect From A Rookie Defensive Tackle? - Blogging The Boys

Observation # 1: When you draft a defensive tackle in the first two rounds, you are NOT drafting an immediate starter.

Of the 32 defensive linemen in the tables above, only 12 (38%) started the majority of games for their teams in their rookie season. If you want a first-year starter at DT, you'll probably have to draft that player in the top 20, at least if the last five years are anything to go by. Outside of Detroit's Nick Fairley, every single defensive tackle drafted in the top 20 over the last five years started in his rookie season.

With the 27th pick, it seems highly unlikely that Dallas is going to find an immediate starter. And if you are not getting an immediate starter with your first-round pick, have you really used it wisely? After all, the Cowboys drafted Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin in the first round and plugged them all right in, and that was the idea with Morris Claiborne before injury issues and struggles on the field derailed that plan. Additionally, as Royce alludes to, Rod Marinelli is committed to a rotational system for his defensive line. That is just not a lot of value for a precious first-round pick.

This is an idea that seems to be percolating. One former BTB staffer has come to a similar conclusion.

Given the approach the Cowboys have taken in the draft of late, this line of reasoning would seem very appropriate for them. However, they did make the trade up in the second round to nab DeMarcus Lawrence last season, so the team may not have quite the same view. On the other hand, the approach the team has taken in free agency to fill defensive line spots does have a similar nature, seeking reasonably priced players who can go hard for a limited number of snaps.

But despite what the team may choose to do, the evidence seems to indicate that taking a defensive end or tackle in the first round would not be a good choice, especially with the Marinelli approach. This would unquestionably lead to a great deal of dismay among many who are focused on needs, but even if you put a great deal of weight on that (and for a variety of reasons, you shouldn't), the data above shows that the need for a defensive lineman is just not as high as you might think. Mid-round guys with high motors may be what the team really needs. Pending developments in which of their own free agents the Cowboys are able to sign, the need for other positions may be much more pressing for that first round pick.

Of course, the Cowboys may well be trading down. That would also give them more opportunities to find a defensive lineman who would actually fit the way Dallas wants to play defense by rotating their front four and wearing down the offensive line in the later stages of the game.

If this were to be the way the Cowboys look at the draft, you would expect to see tackles and ends in the mid rounds to reflect their value. It certainly is something to keep in mind when the draft kicks off.

Do you think this idea has merit, or are you convinced that D line is the way to go in the first round? Sound off in the comments.