Certainly there's a lot to be excited about when discussing the 2016 edition of the Dallas Cowboys. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are back, and Ezekiel Elliott is on board running behind what is widely considered the best offensive line in the game. Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys best cornerback, returns to the field and Byron Jones has found a home at safety. The Cowboys should be a powerhouse on offense and they have some pieces on defense, but, in a recurring theme, it's probably all going to depend on one unit to determine just how far they go. The defensive line.
The NFL is a pass-happy league now, and if you can't pressure the quarterback you better be ready to win a ton of shootouts. The Cowboys have been failing along the defensive line recently, finishing last year with only 31 sacks. One of the themes of the offseason has been Dallas' "casual" approach to addressing the problem. They have made some moves, but none of them have been high-profile, "throw some real resources at the situation" moves. So as things sit today, let's review exactly what they have along the line.
The Top Line
With no suspension or injuries, I believe this would be the Cowboys starting line.
DeMarcus Lawrence - We're still waiting on the appeal of the four-game suspension, but Lawrence is arguably the Cowboys top pass rusher. He led the team with eight sacks last year and appears to be getting better and better. Maybe the Cowboys will get lucky in regards to his suspension.
Tyrone Crawford - Had a so-so season last year, but spent most of the time fighting through a shoulder injury. Recently signed a big contract extension, he must live up to the important role of the 3-tech in a Rod Marinelli defense. Because of the suspensions to Lawrence and Randy Gregory, he may have to spend some time at defensive end early in the year.
Cedric Thornton - The free agent addition is a player who just may surprise some. He was overshadowed by some very good defensive linemen in Philly, but he's a solid player who can man either defensive tackle spot for the Cowboys but likely will be a 1-tech. His ability to pressure up the middle could make life easier for the defensive ends, and he may help improve a soft run defense.
Randy Gregory - The enigma. Just how good can he be? We don't know because injury derailed his first season, and now a suspension will rob him of the first four games in 2016. He certainly has the physical traits for a speed rusher, but can he pull it all together mentally and remain healthy? He's a true wild card.
Overall, that's not a terrible defensive line when they can all get on the field together. Crawford and Thornton in the middle should create some pressure that will force quarterbacks to roll out, hopefully into the arms of Lawrence and Gregory. Unfortunately we'll have to wait until a quarter of the season to go past before we get an opportunity to find out.
The Rotation Guys
These guys have proven they can contribute, and they will have to contribute even more early in the season because of suspensions.
Jack Crawford - The Jack of all trades. He can play inside or outside, and does a fairly good job of being disruptive when on the field. He might be one of the starters at defensive end early in the year. The good thing about Crawford is he has been getting better every year. We're not sure what his true potential is yet.
Benson Mayowa - In Oakland, he was the rotation guy that came in and gave the starters a break. Towards the end of last season, because of injuries, he played more and wasn't overwhelmed. Dallas shelled out good money for him, and his physical traits are ideal, can Marinelli draw out all of his potential?
David Irving - He came out of nowhere and showed Dallas that they may have found a gem. In limited action last year he kept making plays. Another guy with position flex, Irving is a player to watch this season, if he continues his trajectory he might become more than just a rotation guy.
The Prove It Duo
A couple of vets who need to show up.
Terrell McClain - We keep saying he might be the answer at the 1-tech, that he's a guy with a lot of potential, but he just hasn't been able to take advantage. Injury knocked him out of last season early, and the Cowboys need him to finally seize a spot in the rotation. He has to stay healthy and prove he belongs.
Ryan Russell - Last year's draft pick hasn't shown much yet. With the early suspensions at defensive end, now is the time to prove his worth, or he could find himself expendable.
The Draft Picks
Two new guys who will be given every opportunity to shine.
Maliek Collins - The third-round draft pick looks like he's slotted to be Crawford's main backup at the 3-tech. He's a big guy but with a quick first step and penetrating moves. He has a huge opportunity early because Crawford might kick out to defensive end during the suspensions, given Collins the opportunity to grab playing time.
Charles Tapper - A SPARQ freak, the athletic Tapper is another guy who has the chance to show up early. Defensive end is an open position for the first four weeks of the season, giving the rookie a prime opportunity to show what he can do. Can the "pet cat" make a home for himself?
These guys will be given a chance, but breaking into the rotation in any meaningful way may be too much to ask.