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Defensive Line Priority For Dallas Cowboys: Defensive Tackle Or Defensive End?

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There is little doubt that the Cowboys' defensive line needs a talent upgrade, but should that be at defensive tackle or defensive end?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last 20 years, the average number of sacks per NFL team has oscillated pretty significantly, between a low of 32.4 in 2008 and a high of 41.7 in 1997, as the graph below illustrates.

Sacks per team

In the constant battle between pass rush and pass protection, each side is constantly trying to outmaneuver the other. When offenses move to three-step drops to avoid sacks, defenses start bringing pressure up the middle. Offenses that shore up their interior offensive line in response then find themselves vulnerable to the outside rush. And on and on it goes.

In a recent fanpost, BTB-member ScarletO showed that in 2014, almost 7 of 10 sacks by the defensive front were made by the defensive ends. He also pointed out that the Cowboys had one of the worst percentages of sacks from its defensive ends among 4-3 defensive fronts.

These numbers suggest two possible approaches for the Cowboys to improve their overall pass rush. The first is that the Cowboys need more production from their defensive ends, who need to get more pressure from the edge. The second is that the defensive tackles need to collapse the pocket much more. If the quarterback can't step up into the pocket to avoid the outside pressure, the production from the defensive ends should almost automatically increase as a result of more pressure up the middle.

Both of these approaches have their merits, which makes it difficult to determine which is the better option. With this in mind, we can consider three strategies to improve the defensive line and at the same time improve the pass rush this year - and we'll look at which one of the three strategies makes the most sense.

  • Sign a free agent outside rusher. The best free agent who could potentially be available is Justin Houston, who plays in a 3-4 scheme as an outside linebacker. But can he successfully make the switch to defensive end? And how much was he helped by having an outstanding interior defensive tackle (Dontari Poe) and an equally outstanding bookend OLB (Tamba Hali)? Another thing to consider is that in a 3-4 alignment it is more difficult to determine who the rushers are going to be, and that may have helped his numbers as well. Also, he may be too costly as far as the cap goes to be a realistic option.

  • Sign a free agent defensive tackle. The best choice here might be Nick Fairley. With Fairley, the question is how much playing next to Ndamukong Suh may have helped his numbers and effectiveness.

  • Draft a defensive tackle or defensive end. Because it usually takes about three years for many draft picks to really begin to come into their own, and with the window that Tony Romo realistically has, this one would seem to be the least favorable option. It should be noted that Zack Martin is the best example that rookies don't have to take three years to become outstanding, but keep in mind only the rarest are that good that soon. Also, picking late in the round the Cowboys may only get the fourth or fifth best player at a position like DE or DT, and that may not be good enough talent wise.

If the Cowboys choose to go with one of the free agent routes, it would seem to make more sense to go after the defensive tackle. The reason the quarterbacks hate pressure up the middle is the same exact reason we should go with the defensive tackle route and not the defensive end route. Had we gotten more pressure from the defensive tackles we might have seen Anthony Spencer and the other outside rushers have a much more impressive sack totals. And you build your team from the inside out, which means your defensive tackles are the ones to shore up before the defensive ends. One reason is the fact that the inside is where you have the most effect on stopping the running game as well as getting pressure up the middle, and that means a defensive tackle upgrade helps in both areas the most.

Keep in mind, the type of defensive tackle matters a lot also. When it comes to 4-3 defenses or even 3-4 defenses, the gap responsibility scheme is perhaps the most important factor to consider when looking at the type of player you need. If a team runs a two-gap scheme, then big guys like Tony Siragusa are desired, but in a one-gap system like the one Marinelli uses, it is more important to have guys that can play in the backfield instead of just holding the point of attack as they are asked to do in most two-gap systems.

If the Cowboys like Nick Fairley as much as I do, then they should do what it takes to get him. In an ideal free agency world, you want guys that are no older than 27, will not break the bank when you sign them, and are more than just a bridge or gap signing.

Whether by chance or by design, the Cowboys have shown a tendency to draft the best or second best player at his position with their top pick in the draft. The best defensive tackles will be long gone by the time the Cowboys' 27th pick rolls around. But if the Cowboys can sign Fairley, they could close a hole they probably won't be able to close with premier talent in the draft, and could use their 27th pick for premier talent at other positions, like running back or safety - or whoever is the best player who falls into their laps.

So, for me, signing a top free agent defensive tackle makes the most sense, and Nick Fairley seems to fit the type of player the Cowboys are looking for and he probably won't break the bank either.

And as they say, the games are won in the trenches!