As with our article on the defensive backs, the issue on the defensive line is the position flex of many of the Cowboys’ players. For example, is David Irving better as a defensive end, or defensive tackle? If he plays end, does he always need to line up on the strong side, or can he flip sides? Tyrone Crawford is another lineman who has moved, from defensive end in a Cowboys 3-4, to 3-technique in a 4-3, to strong side defensive end in a 4-3. Demarcus Lawrence was drafted as a weak side 4-3 defensive end, but has also flipped to the strong side. There are more players who can flex.
Given that flexibility, how do you expect the Cowboys to line guys up, and who will get the most snaps?
Before we jump into this year, it’s useful to see who got snaps on the defensive line last year.
Let’s break down the players, starting with the flex players, then looking at the players set at defensive tackle and end.
Flex Players - Are They DEs or DTs?
Where are the Cowboys going to put David Irving? Likely all over the place. But the question is - where is he best?
In the first game against the Green Bay Packers last year, when he won defensive player of the week in only 19 snaps, Irving played defensive tackle. Here’s an excellent write up of his performance during that game.
If you are counting at home that was a sack, three caused fumbles, including one he himself recovered, a pass break up, a tackle for no gain and an assist.
Yet at the end of the year against Tampa Bay, he played 38 snaps, mostly at left defensive end. As we recounted in our weekly snap counts article, he had
two tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks, five quarterback hits, and a pass defensed.
He essentially closed out the 26-20 win for the Cowboys.
He played 489 snaps last year, fourth on the team. Will his workload increase?
Crawford was originally drafted by Dallas when the team played a 3-4 under Rob Ryan. He was slotted in as a defensive end, where he played 295 snaps. In 2013, he suffered an injury in training camp and missed the season. By 2014, the Cowboys defense was under Rod Marinelli, who moved Crawford inside to play 3-technique. He was second on the team with 627 snaps. He stayed inside in 2015, but last season, once it was clear Maliek Collins could hold down the 3-technique position, and with Demarcus Lawrence suspended for the first four games, the Cowboys moved Crawford out to left defensive end, where he would remain for the rest of the year. He had some great games there, and was second again in snaps among defensive linemen. He also said it helped his body recover not having to mix it up inside. But the Cowboys are still waiting for more consistency and impact from Crawford.
With so many options at end now, will Crawford stay there, or move back inside and rotate with Collins at 3-technique?
Let’s let Will McClay, the Cowboys Senior Director of Pro and College Personnel explain why the Cowboys liked Charlton.
"I think going after Taco in the first round gives us a defensive end that we feel like has upside, that's athletic, but that can also be multiple, play right end, left end, can play inside, can mismatch guys on the inside," McClay said on 105.3 The Fan's G-Bag Nation show [KRLD-FM]. "He had four different positions at Michigan. He's the right kind of kid. He's got size, he's got length. That helps us there."
Even though he has versatility, it’s certain that the Cowboys are going to start Charlton as a defensive end, and likely play him on the weak side. But the team may still move him around to give the Cowboys the best matchups possible.
Who is Demarcus Lawrence? The Cowboys invested second- and third-round picks to move up and get him as the last true edge rusher in the 2014 draft. Is he the guy who led the Cowboys in sacks in 2015 with eight? Or is he the guy who has only played well in spurts, as he did during his rookie season, when he was hurt the first half of the year and only came on at the end, or last year, when he was suspended for four games and missed three more with back issues? He’s gone from 1 AV, to 8 AV, to 2 AV (approximate value) in three years. He’s also moved from right defensive end to the left side as the Cowboys searched for speedier rushers by drafting Randy Gregory in 2015 and then signing Benson Mayowa as a free agent in 2016.
Lawrence is in a contract year, and is coming off a second back surgery, so one hopes he’s ready to rock-and-roll. He only played 329 snaps last year, which was seventh among defensive linemen. Is he ready to take the lead this year at one of the end spots?
Mayowa was signed as a free agent last year. He has a $2.6 million cap hit this year, in the second year of a three-year deal. He led Dallas with six sacks in 382 snaps, even though he was benched for three games for Ryan Davis. When he returned, he stepped up his game. The Cowboys need that kind of effort all the time.
Moore was drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft by the New York Giants. He only lasted into 2015, when he was cut and picked up by Miami. Last year, he played four games for Seattle. He was highly rated when he came out, but his career has been derailed by various behavioral incidents. Can he revive his career in Dallas?
Tapper is a wild card, because of his redshirt year when he was out with a Pars Defect back injury. He’s now cleared to go. At Oklahoma he was used as a 3-4 defensive end, which failed to harness his great speed. Here’s an excerpt of our write up after he was drafted in the fourth round — ahead of Dak Prescott — last year.
[I]f you were engineering a pass rusher from scratch, you'd build Charles Tapper. That is not an exaggeration. He's literally physically perfect for the position. Now, as you might expect from someone who was drafted in the fourth round, he is something of a project. Apart from a decent spin it seems he has no pass rushing moves at all. How does this happen to someone who came up in a nationally ranked college system like Oklahoma University? Well, it seems he was largely asked to be a two-gapping 5-tech, ala Marcus Spears. And he was good at it, but it didn't give him the chance to develop a lot of pass rush technique.
Nonetheless he managed seven sacks in his last season at OU.
Off his combine numbers, he compared very favorably to some highly productive pass rushers (click the article to see them). Where does he fit best on the depth chart?
He played the most snaps of any lineman last season - 659, or 62% of the snaps - at 3-technique. That was remarkable for at least two reasons. First, he missed all of training camp and preseason to an injury, yet stepped in from the first game and quickly pushed Tyrone Crawford outside. Second, he was a rookie. His 7 AV tied for the best score among Cowboys linemen, with Crawford and Terrell McClain.
When thinking about which Cowboy defensive lineman will step up his game to the next level, Maliek Collins often gets overlooked, but he shouldn’t. He may be the best lineman on the team.
In 2016, Thornton was the Cowboys’ biggest free agent investment, signing a four-year $17 million contract. In Philadelphia, he played 3-4 defensive end next to Fletcher Cox, but would be moved to tackle in the Cowboys’ 4-3. He never really acclimated well, and couldn’t overtake Terrell McClain for the 1-technique job, finishing with only 277 snaps and 2 AV. This after scoring 8, 8, and 5 AV his last three years in Philadelphia.
Frankly, if it weren’t for a dead cap hit of $6.75 million this year, Thornton might be at risk of being cut. He needs to step up his game.
Paea, who played his best football under Rod Marinelli in Chicago, scoring 8, 4, and 6 AV over three years as a nose tackle, signed as a free agent, ostensibly to replace Terrell McClain inside after Washington snapped up McClain in free agency. He’s on a one-year deal for $1.9 million, with no cap hit if he doesn’t make the team. He’s going to have to prove himself to lock up a job.
Ash was an end-of-season addition to the Cowboys line who allowed the team to rest many regulars for the final regular season game against Philadelphia. He’s strictly a 1-technique run-stuffer, but will have a hard time making the roster, and is more likely either a practice squad candidate or will be let go.
The first of two seventh-round defensive tackles drafted by Dallas, his selection was met by cheers by Rod Marinelli. Here’s our initial scouting report.
I don't know much about Joey Ivie, but I know Rod Marinelli looked pretty pumped when the Cowboys made him the 228th pick.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) April 29, 2017
Is he a 1-technique, or 3-technique? Not sure anyone knows, but we will find out.
Carrell was the last Cowboys’ pick in the draft, a defensive tackle from Colorado who led the Buffaloes in snaps. His combine numbers are better than Ivie’s. Here’s a fun little comparison between Jay Ratliff, another seventh-round defensive lineman who did pretty well for Dallas, and our new seventh-round tackles.
|Combine||Jay Ratliff||Jordan Carrell||Joey Ivie|
|40 yard||4.85 sec||4.98 sec||5.14 sec|
|20 yard shuttle||4.23 sec||4.5 sec||4.72 sec|
|3 cone||7.35 sec||7.9 sec||8.09 sec|
They may not be competing for the same job, as Carrell might project more as a 3-technique and Ivie a 1-technique. But we’ll have to see.
The Cowboys could carry up to 10 linemen on the 53-man roster if they go light elsewhere, even though they are only likely to dress eight on game day.
But which 10, and where will they play?
Here’s one take on the depth chart from Ourlads.com.
That’s not how I think the team will line them up, but that’s what’s so interesting this year. You could ask five people to draw up this chart and come up with five different answers.
What do we know? Maliek Collins will start at 3-technique.
We also know that the Cowboys will keep: Taco Charlton, Tyrone Crawford, Demarcus Lawrence, David Irving, Benson Mayowa, Cedric Thornton, and Charles Tapper. Some of these are for contract reasons, others based on performance, others because they are still on cheap rookie contracts.
That’s eight guys who are pretty much locks. With Collins, that is four guys who are primarily defensive ends: Charlton, Lawrence, Mayowa, and Tapper, two guys who are just defensive tackles: Collins and Thornton, and two flex guys: Crawford and Irving.
That leaves the following guys fighting for up to two roster spots: Stephen Paea (DT), Damontre Moore (DE), Joey Ivie (DT), Jordan Carrell (DT), Richard Ash (DT). The last three guys are eligible for the practice squad if they don’t make the roster, and don’t get poached by another team, but that doesn’t mean they can’t push their way onto this year’s team with a strong training camp and pre-season.
Let the competition begin.