The Dallas Cowboys have had a difficult time rebuilding the defensive line. After former Pro Bowlers DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Anthony Spencer all departed, the team has been scrambling for years to get the right pieces in place. They’ve used an assortment of names ranging from high risk/reward draft picks (Randy Gregory) to JAGs (Nick Hayden). And they’ve invested in several low-cost free agent signings (George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, and Benson Mayowa) hoping to get one that sticks.
Not only have they used a lot of different players, but they have played musical chairs with the positions they put their guys in. Tyrone Crawford started out at defensive end, moved inside to defensive tackle, then moved back outside to defensive end. And Maliek Collins shifted from 3-tech DT in 2016 to logging plenty of snaps at the 1-tech spot last season. The shuffling of Crawford and Collins both came out of necessity, despite them each having success at the 3-tech DT position.
Position flexibility is great, but what’s even better is having players in the right position to maximize what they can do on the field. The team needs to stop trying to make do with what they’ve got, but instead - go out and get the players to make it work. Fortunately for them, they’re in a position now where all it takes is one simple draft selection at pick 19 in the upcoming draft.
A Monster in the Middle
There are two really good 1-tech defensive tackles in this year’s draft - Washington’s Vita Vea and Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne. Both of these players are projected to go somewhere between picks 10-25 of the draft. It’s possible they’re both gone, but it’s also possible they are both there at 19. There stands a good chance that at least one of them is still on the board when the Cowboys pick and it would be a huge boost to their defense if they could grab one of them.
Vea is an overpowering punisher in the middle. He uses his size and quickness to dislodge blockers. At 6’4” and 344 lbs, when he sets up shop in the trenches, he’s almost impossible to move and can barricade the interior of the line. He’s got violent hands and can throw linemen aside to close down running lanes quickly. And while he’s excellent against the run, his quickness and bull-rushing power will allow him to be effective rushing the quarterback.
Like Vea, Payne also possess a great combination of strength and athleticism. Despite only weighing in at 308 lbs, this guy is all muscle as he has remarkable natural strength. He has great body control and you will seldom see him off balance. Unlike Vea, Payne is already fundamentally sound and can be a force right away. He does a great job absorbing blocks so his linebackers can have a clean shot at the ball carrier. There isn’t a better run stuffing defensive linemen in this draft.
Taking one of the best collegiate players at the 1-tech position is the easiest way to maximize the strength of the Cowboys defensive line. The future of the DL could look like this:
Edge: DeMarcus Lawrence (age 25)
3-tech DT: Maliek Collins (22)
1-tech DT: Vita Vea or Da’Ron Payne (23 or 20)
Edge: Taco Charlton (23)
This is a very young group with phenomenal upside. Lawrence has already broke onto the scene as one of the leagues best young pass rushers and will have a huge paycheck to show for it. Collins flourished at the 3-tech spot his rookie season and would be able to go back to doing what he was good at - get the quarterback. This would also contain two consecutive first-round investments in Taco and Vea or Payne.
The team would also have some good options coming off the bench as well. Big decisions will have to be made regarding the future of Tyrone Crawford (28), David Irving (24) and Charles Tapper (24), who each have their own things working against them.
Crawford has been a solid player, but hasn’t flashed any signs of becoming a star in this league. And at 28-years-old, he probably never will. Crawford is fine as a quality “fill-in” guy who can play anywhere you need him to, but with a cap hit of around $10 million for each of the next three years - that’s not good bang for your buck. There may come a point (maybe as early as next year) where the numbers make sense for Crawford to become a cap casualty. But for now, the depth is still needed and he provides a great veteran presence in the locker room for the younger pass rushers to learn from.
David Irving is an enigma. The fans love him and for good reason. He’s gotten better with every new season and he might already be the most disruptive defensive linemen on the roster. And at the young age of 24, this kid is just getting started. The Cowboys may see it differently as concerns in his behavior are reasons for pause. After several years of looking for pass rushers, I can’t imagine the team would be so willing to let him get away. Will the team place a first-round tender on him? Second-round tender? We’ll know the answer soon enough, but if the team could somehow harness the good in him to where he could reach his full potential - that could mean great things for this defense.
The book isn’t closed yet on Charles Tapper, but with only two games to show over the first two years of his career - there’s not much written in it yet. Fans keep getting themselves excited about what he can do, only to never get a real good look at him. He does have a sack to his credit out of those two games he’s played, but it’s really hard to expect much from him at this point. He is now healthy again if that means anything. Who knows what a season of good health will produce, if it ever happens.
While it’s been a long and painstaking process rebuilding the defensive line for the Cowboys, they are gradually getting there. The decisions they make over the next few months could turn out to shape the defense for years to come. Bring us that monster in the middle, Jerry. You do that for us - great things will follow.