There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the Dallas Cowboys defensive line this year. DeMarcus Lawrence had a breakout season last year. He’s been tagged and is playing in his second straight contract year. Tyrone Crawford provides a solid veteran presence on the other side. Second-year edge rusher Taco Charlton is showing good growth so far in camp. He’s hungry. And raw but talented Randy Gregory will be making his return to football after a lengthy hiatus. Even rookie Dorance Armstrong is wreaking havoc against second- and third-team offensive linemen in training camp. The upside of talent from this group is titillating.
On the inside, however, there are still a lot of question marks and inadequate play from the interior line could dampen the unit’s ability to be a force this season. That puts the defensive tackle position under the spotlight for the Cowboys this year.
The Cowboys did not draft Vita Vea in April’s draft. Nor did they draft DaRon Payne. Both those players were off the board before the Cowboys were on the clock so we don’t even know if they were in play for them had they been available. And based on past actions from this team when it comes to the 1-tech defensive tackle position, there was certainly no guarantee that they’d make such a big investment in one of those players.
Terrell McClain came in for a visit this offseason, but left without a deal. That was a little disappointing considering the type of impact the veteran lineman made with the team during his last season with the Cowboys. McClain was quietly one of the more underrated reasons for the success this team had in 2016. The 2016 defense was no. 1 in the league against the run, only giving up 83.7 yards per game. His presence inside also did wonders in absorbing the contact and preserving the health of the linebackers. 2016 is the only season in Sean Lee’s career that he didn’t miss a single game due to injury. Lee finished the year with a career-high 145 tackles, earning All-Pro honors.
Having an effective run-stopping interior lineman makes a world of difference. The Cowboys didn’t have that last year, although you can’t fault them for trying. Stephen Paea was signed in free agency last year, but a degenerative knee condition cut his season short. Paea would only play in four games. The Cowboys also signed Brian Price off the Green Bay Packers practice squad to put in their back pocket for depth. And with Paea’s injury, that depth was put into immediate use. Unfortunately, Price would also suffer a knee injury halfway through the season and be placed on injured reserve.
So, where does the defensive tackle group stand right now? They have two really good players on the team in Maliek Collins and David Irving, but they are both dealing with their own problems and they are not practicing in training camp right now. Collins has a broken foot. While he is expected to be back before the season begins, he’s missing valuable time in camp. As far as Irving, we all know he’s an absolute beast when he’s on the field, but getting on the field is no guarantee. For the second straight year, Irving will start the season with a four-game suspension, this time for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Not only that, but he’s also dealing with personal issues right now that are keeping him away from camp.
Irving would hold down the 3-tech defensive tackle spot if he’s available, pushing Collins to the 1-tech spot. Collins was effective his rookie year, but that was when he was playing the 3-tech position, alongside McClain. After recording five sacks his rookie season, Collins showcased his ability as a pass rushing DT, but doesn’t possess the run stopping ability you’d want from your 1-tech.
With both Collins and Irving out, the team has relied on Jihad Ward and Datone Jones to help inside. Both these players have potential, but they are also former defensive ends who are trying to transition inside. While these guys can still bring a lot to the defense, they don’t fit the profile as big-bodied, run-stuffing 1-tech defensive tackles.
Enter Brian Price
Undrafted free agents aren’t sexy, but when you play the 1-tech position, sexiness is not a requirement. What is a requirement for Rod Marinelli is that you have an explosive first-step. Price has that. He also has a lot of power and demonstrates good pad level. Watch him get off the snap quickly, push the guard into the backfield, and allow the linebacker to make the tackle for a loss (who just so happens to be new Cowboys LB Joe Thomas).
Price’s quickness and power is earning him good reviews at camp. Rabblerousr gave Price a good report from Wednesday’s practice.
Yesterday, I noted that Brian Price had given Travis Frederick fits in one-on-one pass rush drills. This trend continued today; on multiple occasions, Price beat Fredbeard— a man who surrendered exactly zero sacks in 2017 — with quickness and surprising power. One of the positions the Cowboys most desperately need a miracle to happen is at the one-technique defensive tackle. Price’s early performance gives us some hope that this miracle might occur.
We don’t hear a whole lot about interior defensive linemen winning much in camp because of a couple All-Pro offensive linemen who have set up shop there, so news that Price is hanging with Frederick is rather impressive. While he’s not a flashy player, Price could be exactly what the Cowboys need on the interior line. The defense has an assortment of defensive tackle options on pass rushing downs (they could even move Tyrone Crawford inside if needed), but Price gives them a nice two-down player than can help stop the run. He’s a blue-collar guy that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, but his ability to get push in the middle on early downs may be one of those underrated factors that helps this team succeed.
Often times, this team creates the illusion of sitting on their hands not addressing certain positions that seem like a weak spot, but it’s very possible the lack of decisions to bring in a new player has a lot to do with how they feel about certain players already on the roster. The Cowboys ate a good chunk of dead money when they released Cedric Thornton last season, but they needed that spot for Price. The team believes they have something in this guy and it might be time for us to start believing that as well.