Throughout this offseason, it had been thought that the Dallas Cowboys were going to be in the market for pass-rushing help at some point. The Cowboys' biggest splash in free agency was signing Cedric Thornton in free agency and while Thornton looks to be an immediate improvement over the likes of Nick Hayden, the Cowboys still needed help at defensive en. The impending suspensions to both Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence only made that need more pressing.
It's yet to be clear what exactly will happen in Lawrence's case, as the second-year product recently put in an appeal for his suspension. Even with the Cowboys' addition of Charles Tapper, Maliek Collins, and Thornton, the Cowboys are going to struggle to generate a pass rush without some of its best players in Lawrence and Gregory. Below are my predictions as to who will get the bulk of the snaps across the defensive line to start the season.
Left Defensive End: Tyrone Crawford
The main surprise of this list will be Crawford. With the Cowboys' question marks at defensive end, kicking Crawford over and sliding him to the left defensive end position makes sense. Over the past couple of years, Crawford has been a nice player for Dallas at the 3-technique. But because they don't have much depth at defensive end, the Cowboys should move Crawford outside in hopes that Crawford can use his athleticism and power to beat offensive tackles.
1-Technique Defensive Tackle: Cedric Thornton
Adding Thornton in free agency was a really nice get for the Cowboys. He's extremely active, displaying consistent, strong hands, and he fits exactly what Rod Marinelli looks for in his defensive lineman. Thornton gets a great jump off the football and he's extremely solid at getting through gaps and making plays in the backfield. Thornton won't be used on each down, but he'll be the main key cog of this defensive tackle group.
3-Technique Defensive Tackle: Maliek Collins
Similar to Thornton, it's worth being said that Collins won't take every snap. However, he'll be the guy who gets the most work at the 3-technique defensive tackle position to start the year. I have my concerns about Collins' consistency, but with a smaller workload, I think the Cowboys will get the most out of Collins. One thing I take away from Collins is how akin he is to Thornton. Collins is extremely quick and he can sometimes make some "wow" plays. His natural feeling to the 3-technique role will push him to be featured heavily for the first four weeks of the season.
Right Defensive End: Charles Tapper
If we're going to talk about athletes, Tapper might just be one of the best in the draft. The Cowboys have drafted players lately based off their analytical measurables. In this regard, Tapper has tested off the charts. Once Tapper gets to an NFL conditioning program to put on some build, he's going to be quite the player based off his athletic prowess. I wouldn't be surprised if Ryan Russell and Tapper split snaps here to start the year.
In the Rotation: Jack Crawford (LDE), Ryan Russell (RDE), Benson Mayowa (LDE), David Irving (1T), Terrell McClain (1T)
Re-signing Crawford was definitely a move I'm excited about. Every time the Cowboys give him a bigger role, he continues to shine. He's an athletic guy who can generate a nice pass rush in spurts off the edge. It's yet to be seen what Russell can mean to this defensive line, but he's another guy who tested off the charts. With another offseason under his belt, Russell will compete for playing time in 2016.
The Cowboys signed Mayowa over the offseason. Somewhat of an unproven player in the NFL, Mayowa is the guy that the Cowboys have followed since his time in Seattle. His size is a little alarming, but he is another guy that oozes athletic ability.
Improving the talent at defensive tackle is something the Cowboys have taken note of over the the past few years, and Irving and McClain are both going to have opportunities to come in and make an impact. Irving stood out in 2015 and another year to develop should only help him. In McClain's case, if the veteran can stay healthy, he'll be able to make an impact in the running game as a space-clogging defensive tackle.
The Cowboys will miss Lawrence and Gregory. But there is still some talent that can be molded by Marinelli and Leon Lett to be somewhat of a formidable unit. With an improved secondary, the Cowboys' defensive line will have more time to get to the quarterback. A strong training camp will do wonders for this group and as long as they can stay healthy, all of them can contribute to make up a decent unit to hold down the front until Lawrence and Gregory get back on the field.