Much of the pre- and post-draft talk in Dallas this year revolved around edge rushers. Prior to the draft, the discussion was about which edge rushers the Cowboys should take, and after the draft a lot of the discussion was about which edge rusher the Cowboys should have taken.
The Cowboys drafted Taco Charlton with their first pick in the 2017 NFL draft, brought in former third-round pick Damontre Moore in free agency, and have high hopes for their noticeably slimmed down red-shirt rookie Charles Tapper.
Cowboys DE Charles Tapper says he is 260 with 11 pct body fat. He is in the best shape of his life with no issues with his back. He is ready— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) May 24, 2017
Tapper said he was 280 with 16 percent body fat as a rookie last year— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) May 24, 2017
All these players are edge rushers, but what if the Cowboys are looking to fix their pass rush from the inside?
In January 2013, when Warren Sapp first heard that the Cowboys were going to switch back to a 4-3 and hire his former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator in Dallas, Sapp's first question was: "Who is the motor...? Because it's got to be the 3-technique."
Turns out, that was a pretty good question, and one that I'm not sure the Cowboys have satisfactorily answered since then.
- In 2013, Jason Hatcher proved to be that motor and played the 3-technique so well he recorded 11 sacks, got the only Pro Bowl nod of his career, and translated all of that into a four-year, $27.5 million contract with the Redskins.
- In 2014, the Cowboys brought in DT Henry Melton on a one-year contract that included a team option for three more years. During the season, Tyrone Crawford passed him on the depth chart, and the Cowboys declined to exercise Melton's three-year option after the season.
- In 2015, the team signed Crawford to a five-year, $45 million contract extension as their future 3-technique, but Crawford struggled most of the year with a shoulder injury (a torn rotator cuff suffered in Week 2) that limited his performance to five sacks and 27 QB pressures, both of which ranked third behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Greg Hardy. Crawford had surgery after the season to fix his shoulder.
- In 2016, the Cowboys chose to rotate more players at the 3-techniques spot. Rookie Maliek Collins led all DTs with five sacks in a rotation with Terrell McClain (2.5 sacks), Jack Crawford (3.5), and occasionally even David Irving (4) along with Tyrone Crawford (4.5) who would end up playing both defensive end and defensive tackle, and would also end up needing offseason shoulder surgery again, though this procedure was on his left shoulder.
Collins played so well he made NFL.com's Next Gen Stats rookie team.
Defensive lineman: Maliek Collins, Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys DL Maliek Collins proved to be effective as a pass rusher from the Dallas interior defensive line. Averaging 4.28 seconds from snap to sack, Collins recorded the fastest average time to sack among rookie interior defensive linemen and was also 5th among all interior pass rushers in fastest average time to sack.
His five sacks also led all rookie defensive tackles last year, and were the third-highest total recorded by a Cowboys rookie.
His versatility allows the Cowboys to play him at both interior spots, and his potential could make him the centerpiece of a revamped interior defensive line that may hold the key to solving the Cowboys' pass rush issues.
With the addition of Charlton and Moore, and the return of Tapper, the Cowboys will likely move Crawford back inside where he'll be another dynamic presence (if he remains healthy) next to Collins. They're also banking on Cedric Thornton, who has the same position flexibility as Crawford and Collins, to regain the form he showed in Philly.
Nobody is going to mistake this year's free agency addition Stephen Paea for a pass rusher, but he's a valuable and powerful addition on early run downs, where he'll eat up double teams with ease.
The Cowboys also added two late-round picks to their defensive tackle arsenal, Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell, and Ivie in particular could be an option at 3-technique down the line, but both will likely need a year on the practice squad to develop.
But the versatility on the Cowboys' D-line isn't just limited to defensive tackles. David Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence can both move inside on passing downs, and it took rookie Taco Charlton all of two OTA practices before he also started getting snaps inside.
Charles Tapper on playing DE when Taco is at DT: "Man, it's freaky. We have a scary front. I can't wait to get to camp and put the pads on."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 25, 2017
Going into 2017, the Cowboys will likely play four pass rushers on passing downs, and whether some of them are defensive ends or defensive tackles will be little more than semantics - all four will be looking to get after the QB fast and hard. One of the four will be double-teamed, leaving the other three rushers with one-on-one matchups against offensive linemen. Sure, you can keep one tight end in to help with one of the rushers, but the other two will still only have to get by one guy.
Rod Marinelli hates blitzing. His defensive scheme is predicated on a four-man rush getting pressure on the QB, which leaves seven players to play pass coverage. If the scheme works, QBs can find themselves in big trouble, but if the pass rush can't get to the QB, the pass defense is in big trouble. Because then the QB has more time to go through his progressions and will eventually find open receivers.
If all a QB has to do to avoid the pass rush is step up in the pocket, and you can't bring pressure up the middle, then all the edge rushers in the world aren't going to be much help.
It used to be that all defensive tackles had to do was stop the run, take on double teams and anchor to hold their ground. But increasingly, defensive tackles are being asked to collapse the pocket and force the quarterback to move around, allowing the defensive ends to come in and finish the job.
And that's exactly what the Cowboys look to be doing with their defensive line. And if their plan for interior pressure comes together as planned, the Dallas edge rushers will suddenly look like world beaters as they collect one clean-up sack after another on QBs flushed out of the pocket by the interior pass rush.