Tyrone Crawford has had a tumultuous career with the Dallas Cowboys. When he was drafted in 2012 out of Boise State the Cowboys defensive coordinator was Rob Ryan and the scheme that he was running was an exotic 3-4 front with aggressive blitzes brought from all angles. Crawford measured in at a shade over 6-4 and 275 lbs at the 2012 Combine, and there was no mistaking that he was drafted to be a 3-4 defensive end. He was too big, and not quite a good enough pass-rusher to be an outside linebacker, but obviously not big enough to play nose tackle. He had an uneventful rookie season in that role, amassing just 20 tackles and no sacks, pass deflections, or forced fumbles.
That 2012 defense was one of the worst in Cowboys history and at the end of the season Ryan was fired. Going into 2013 he was replaced by Monte Kiffin, a coach who some consider to be the godfather of the “Tampa 2” scheme, which is the diametrical opposite of Ryan’s scheme. It wasn’t clear whether Crawford would play defensive end or tackle in this alignment as he was not quite big enough to play tackle but not quite fast or athletic enough to play full-time on the edge. Either way, there would be no answer to that question as Crawford tore his Achilles in training camp and missed the entire 2013 season.
After yet another historically bad defense in 2013 Kiffin was replaced by his long-time pupil and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. The scheme was more or less the same, but the fact remains that it was Crawford’s third defensive coordinator in as many seasons in the league, and coming off the Achilles injury nobody knew quite what to expect. Crawford started off the year at defensive end but quickly shifted inside to the 3-technique tackle within the first few games of the year. He would go on to have arguably his best season as a pro in 2014, despite only 3 sacks, compared to 5 and 4.5 respectively over the next two years, and he was rewarded with an extension right before the 2015 season kicked off that averages $9 million per season.
Statistically 2015 was his best season with a career-high 5 sacks but Crawford was not nearly as effective as he was in 2014, partly due to a torn rotator cuff that required surgery immediately after the season. Despite the injury he wouldn’t miss a game in a season that was effectively over in November.
Going into 2016 Crawford was expected to resume his customary position at tackle, but due to a severe lack of talent on the edge due to various suspensions and injuries to players like Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Charles Tapper, Crawford again switched positions early in the season, this time from tackle to end. He would have another decent season, tallying 4.5 sacks, but he once again failed to reach the level of play that he displayed in 2014, and not only that, but he was mostly supplanted from the 3-technique position by rookie Maliek Collins. He would undergo yet another shoulder surgery just a few days after the season ended.
All of this brings us to the present day. The Cowboys have added first-round pick Taco Charlton at defensive end, Charles Tapper has returned after missing all of 2016, according to early OTA reports David Irving is primarily playing as the first-team strong side defensive end (Crawford’s primary 2016 position), and Demarcus Lawrence is healthy and will seemingly be available Week 1. Not only that, but the team has added two defensive tackles over the past two offseasons in Cedric Thornton and Stephen Paea who are better fits than Crawford as run-stuffers at the 1-technique next to Collins.
So where does that leave Crawford, the highest paid defensive lineman on the team?
In an ideal world I’d imagine the team would like to have Charlton and Lawrence starting at defensive end, and Maliek Collins at the 3-technique with either Thornton or Paea at the 1-technique when the season starts in just over three months. Over three of the last four years Crawford has needed surgery, one to fix the torn Achilles, and one to each of his shoulders. He isn’t an ideal fit as a run-stuffer on the interior but he isn’t an ideal threat off the edge either. Where he brings the most value is as an interior pass-rusher where he can use his quickness to defeat slower interior linemen without having to subject his body to the rigors of playing the run.
This is a long-winded way of saying that in my opinion Crawford should primarily be used as an interior pass-rushing specialist in nickel and dime formations, both to maximize his ability and to spare his body. Many will argue that he’s overpaid and isn’t worth the contract, and I wouldn’t argue otherwise, but that is a conversation for the 2018 offseason.
That is in an ideal world, in reality Crawford has earned the trust of the coaching staff both on the interior and on the edge, depending on where the depth chart is weaker. He isn’t flashy, and he may only be above average at best at either position, but the coaches know what they are getting and won’t have to worry about whether or not he can execute his assignments or play with the required effort.
To me, this makes Crawford a sort of barometer to pay particularly close attention to during training camp, preseason, and over the first few games of the regular season. If he starts shifting outside to defensive end in base packages it could be an indication that either Lawrence or Charlton are not living up to expectations, and if he plays primarily on the interior it could be an indication that Thornton has again failed to earn the trust of the coaches as a starter (as in 2016) or that Paea isn’t able to recapture the form he showed under Marinelli when they were together in Chicago.
Even further, it could mean that Collins, who is arguably the team’s best interior pass-rusher, may have to play more 1-technique than 3-technique in base packages in order to allow Crawford to play the 3-technique if that is indeed where the coaching staff ends up using him.
Either way, the Cowboys will almost certainly employ a heavy rotation at defensive line as they have over the last few years. Crawford’s versatility only makes life easier when things remain as fluid as they are with the depth chart, although if you start to notice him shifting away from his initial position early on as he did in 2014 and 2016 it may be a subtle, yet important indicator that something along the defensive line didn’t go quite as planned.