Rod Marinelli brought a 4-3 system to the defense when he became the defensive coordinator in Dallas. As reviewed many times over the years, he has consistently done more with less and the challenge frankly does not get any easier next season. The roster breakdown for the defensive line, the least talented position group on the team, will be broken down here with the defensive tackles and followed by the defensive ends in the next article.
Maliek Collins was drafted in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft but he suffered a broken right foot early in the OTAs. Unfortunately, he was placed on the physically unable to perform list and missed most of the preseason. He did see action during the 2016 season and performed well and will hopefully remain a starting defensive lineman for the next few years. The Cowboys are relying on him to anchor an the interior of their defense.
Terrell McClain was signed by the Cowboys in 2014 and started fifteen games last season. He had a very strong and surprising 2016 campaign which fortunately for him, occurred during a contract year. He forced two fumbles, recorded 2.5 sacks and had 21 tackles. He was a solid presence for the Cowboys last season and should get re-signed. McClain will be considerably more affordable than some of the bigger names at the position.
Tyrone Crawford was drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft but most of his action at defensive tackle came in 2014. He leveraged a strong season into a five-year, $45 million dollar contract that frankly has not panned out for the Cowboys. He has struggled quite a bit and was even shimmied over to defensive end in 2016 with the emergence of Maliek Collins and the overall lack of depth on the defensive line. He has shown potential and will remain in the mix on the defensive line through the end of his contract.
Cedric Thornton arrived in Dallas in 2016 when he signed a four-year deal and left the Philadelphia Eagles. He did not start any games in 2016 but appeared in 13 games and recorded 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He was somewhat disruptive in the middle but time will tell if the Cowboys made the right move with signing him. He will remain in Dallas as a backup defensive tackle and will give Dallas additional defensive line depth.
Jack Crawford came to Dallas in 2014 and has played in almost every game during the 2015 and 2016 season. He re-signed a one year contract before the 2016 season and again enters the 2017 season as a free agent. He recorded 25 tackles and 3.5 sacks last season. He played both the defensive end and defensive tackle position and did fairly well. Given his low price and lack of consistent impressive play, look for the Cowboys to be able to re-sign him relatively easily.
Richard Ash was signed by the Cowboys late in the 2016 for some end of the season depth while Tyrone Crawford, Cedric Thornton and Terrell McClain rested for the much anticipated playoff run. He enters this offseason as a free agent and given the overall depth at the position combined with his overall lack of success in the NFL, look for the Cowboys to not re-sign him.
Summary of Predictions
Expect the Dallas Cowboys to keep four defensive tackles and rotate all of them between the two defensive tackle spots on the defensive line. There were plays this year that three defensive tackles manned the line and expect Rod Marinelli’s creativity to continue.
Maliek Collins and Terrell McClain: Starters - Depending on how this season goes and if they re-sign McClain, Collins and McClain could solidify their place as the centerpiece of the defensive line. The pressure for these two to perform is rising given that the defensive line remains the least talented group of the defense.
Cedric Thornton and Jack Crawford: Backups - Thornton and Crawford are dependable backups and should rotate at the position with the starters.
Tyrone Crawford - Will spend most of his time out at defensive end, likely ending his experiment at defensive tackle.