It feels absolutely fantastic that the defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys has evolved the way it has. It wasn’t that long ago where this group was filled with an extensive list of no-name players who never amounted to anything in this league. It’s not an exaggeration; here are some players that logged snaps along the defensive line in 2013:
That’s a whole lot of nothing along the defensive line. How did this team even win eight games?
It’s taken a while, but the group has gradually gotten better. In fact, the group is so deep that some good players aren’t going to make the roster. Last year, the Cowboys kept 10 defensive linemen. The two years prior they only kept eight, however, they had players who were starting the season serving a suspension so they knew more resources were eventually coming. It’s hard imagining the team going lighter than 10 with all the talent they have within the group, but whatever number they settle on - some tough cuts will have to be made. From our estimates, there are 15 guys with a shot to make the team, meaning five players could be left out in the cold.
Determining which players the Cowboys keep is going to be hashed out during camp. Attrition will play a role as the heath status of certain players could drive some decisions. The two rookie draft picks selected on Day 3 could be destined for the practice squad; however, a strong camp could put them at risk of being poached. The Cowboys might be forced to burn a roster spot to protect their future. It’s going to be tricky figuring out who to keep.
Last year, playing time was divvied up as follows:
With 10 guys holding down the majority of reps, which players do you think will handle the workload this season? Here are the top five players for each defensive line position in terms of projected playing time:
1. DeMarcus Lawrence - 70% of snaps
There is nothing this guy can’t do, which is why he one of the highest paid pass rushers in the league. Lawrence checks off all the boxes as he has great burst off the snap and good bend to get around the edge. He’s a savvy defender who can play the run well, and his all around greatness has been on full display over the last two seasons.
His snaps should be pretty much the same as last year with a slight drop to keep him fresh as they’ll have the depth behind him to do it.
2. Robert Quinn - 52% of snaps
The veteran pass rusher played in 58% of the snaps last season with the Miami Dolphins, which was the most of any defensive ends. The bulk of their work came mostly from a four-man rotation consisting of Quinn, Cameron Wake, Andre Branch, and Charles Harris. With Tank solidified on the left side, Quinn should see work on the right side, creating quite the pass rushing tandem.
As long as Quinn is healthy, he should see a good dose of reps on the edge. There’s always a chance Tyrone Crawford is still in the mix at defensive end and if that happens - his playing time will drop, but Quinn should be the team’s best option on the right side.
3. Randy Gregory - 35% of snaps
There is no evidence to base this opinion on, but something tells me Gregory isn’t going to miss very much time. We are all left in the dark as what his current indefinite suspension means, but Jerry Jones and company don’t seem overly worried about it. While that part is unclear, what we do know is Gregory looked pretty good last season as he slowly works his way back into the game. His sack/fumble on Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston resulted in the team’s only defensive score of the year.
Even though his original rookie contract would’ve expired this offseason, the team still gets him for real cheap over the next two seasons thanks to an extension signed last month. The organization still believes in him and if he can stay on the field, he’s proven he can be a nice piece to the rotation.
4. Kerry Hyder - 25% of snaps
Usually, when the Cowboys sign a free agent to a cheap one-year deal, he’s nothing more than a bridge, just to add depth until a young, more talented player is ready. And that certainly might be the case with former Lions pass rusher Kerry Hyder, which makes some wonder if he’d be a progress stopper.
But there’s also the other side of the coin where he reverts back to the player who recorded eight sacks a couple years ago. The Lions played him out of position and he was ineffective, but if the Cowboys use him to his strengths on the edge, this veteran pick up might end up being a sneaky-good add.
5. Taco Charlton - 18% of snaps
It might’ve been a ridiculously small sample size, but there was a moment last training camp where Taco Charlton looked really good. Was he hampered by injury last year? Was his focus not where it needed to be?
Regardless of the issue, all eyes will be on Charlton to see if he can right the ship. Forget his first-round draft price. All that is meaningless now, except the part of him having very appealing traits to be a good pass rusher in this league. But the question is - can he turn those traits into production?
Just missed the cut...
If Taco is not cleaning up the last little share of reps, it will be because Dorance Armstrong is. The second-year edge rusher from Kansas has intriguing traits as well and it will be interesting to see how he looks this season.
Normally, this would be the time where we talk about the potential of late-round picks Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks. While there are things about them that give them upside, there are just too many more experienced players ahead of them on the depth chart. They shouldn’t be ruled out, but they have a tough road ahead of them if they’re going to see action this season.
1. Maliek Collins - 61% of snaps
There are two certainties with Maliek Collins: (1) he always suffers some type of offseason/camp injury that causes him to miss precious practice time and (2) when he’s healthy, he’s very good. Despite enduring setbacks each year, Collins had a reputation of always being ready to go as he didn’t miss any action his first two seasons, but that streak came to an end last year as he missed three games with a knee injury.
Collins is playing in a contract year and if he’s at full strength, he’s going to be more disruptive in the trenches that many people realize. It wouldn’t be surprising if he played well enough where fans started talking about how the team can’t afford to let him go when he hits the free agent market in 2020.
2. Tyrone Crawford - 47%
Speaking of underrated guys, Crawford has been the poster child for players undervalued for the last several years. That’s starting to change as more and more people are seeing how important he is to the defense.
Over the years, the team has moved him around to wherever they have the biggest need. With a roster filled with quality depth, Crawford could go to either spot, but his best reps have come when he’s played on the inside.
Trading for Robert Quinn would allow Dallas to play Tyrone Crawford more at DT.— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) March 19, 2019
I like Crawford there better anyways. Knows how to bull-rush and push away defenders with ease.
There will be a lot of playing around with different lineups, but Crawford looks like a great candidate for the 3-tech spot in a NASCAR package to get after the quarterback on passing downs.
3. Antwaun Woods - 42%
What a pleasant surprise Antwaun Woods turned out to be last year. After going undrafted, the Tennessee Titans signed him, but he only played in one game. And when they released him last offseason, the Cowboys quickly pounced, signing him to a cheap two-year deal. While he’s in the last year of his deal, he’ll be an exclusive rights free agent after the season meaning the Cowboys can get him another year for real cheap if they choose.
Woods is a nice body to have at the 1-tech spot. He’s got great short area burst and relentless hustle to splash around in the trenches. Will he be a one-hit wonder or can he build upon a strong debut season? With a crowded defensive tackle group, look for Woods’ reps to drop off some, but he’ll still get his share of the 1-tech snaps.
4. Trysten Hill - 27%
How much will the rookie play in 2019? Well, it’s tough to say as both Collins and Crawford will take many of the 3-tech reps. The coaches will want to get him some reps, but a lot of it will depend on how well he picks things up. Even if he does well, there’s a log jam at the position and barring injury, it will be tough to get a lot of work his rookie season.
Hill may be the future at the position, but right now he’s just getting started.
5. Christian Covington - 23%
It might not feel like there is much room for the team’s latest free agent acquisition, but former Houston Texans Christian Covington should still have a role. While he’s been the sacrificial lamb absorbing contact while his teammates make plays, Covington has the power and balance to be effective against the run. He’ll be able to anchor down better than any of the team’s current defensive tackle options, and he doesn’t get washed away with blocks.
If Woods shows any type of decline from last season, Covington could be the guy that picks up the slack.
Just missed the cut...
It’s easy to forget about what undrafted free agent Daniel Ross has done for the team, but he’s been very solid in what limited reps he’s been given. A new UDFA Daniel Wise could also be in the mix should he perform well in training camp.