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Sorting out the Cowboys crowded defensive line for 2020

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Who will make the cut? It’s a little unclear

Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

For the first time in seven seasons, the Cowboys are significantly changing up their approach to the defensive line. New defensive line coach Jim Tomsula’s preferences are diametrically opposed to what former coach and coordinator Rod Marinelli tried to do.

Whereas Marinelli wanted quick and undersized linemen that fit neatly into his strict 4-3 scheme, Tomsula prefers big-bodied men in the middle that will fit into new coordinator Mike Nolan’s multiple front scheme. And the Cowboys front office quickly went to work in the offseason to get Tomsula some pieces that matched his preferences.

Gerald McCoy is expected to be their high-volume interior pass rusher, and at 300 pounds he’s bigger than the prototypical 3-technique was in Marinelli’s defense. But McCoy is still on the smaller side right now because Dallas also nabbed Dontari Poe, the 346-pound nose tackle, and drafted Neville Gallimore, a versatile tackle from Oklahoma who has played with his weight in the 320’s but slimmed down to just over 300 pounds for his final season.

On the edges of the defensive line, Dallas again added some bigger players. Aldon Smith is a bit of an unknown commodity at this point, but he’s added a ton of muscle weight and is apparently sitting at 287 pounds with “very low bad fat.” The Cowboys drafted Bradlee Anae from Utah, a 265-pound defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid, and added relatively high-priced undrafted free agent Ron’Dell Carter, who weighed in at 269 pounds. They could bring Antwaun Woods back, although his status is a bit unclear at the moment.

All of this is to say that the Cowboys have a very crowded defensive line group right now, and it’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out. We know who three of the four starters are going to be, barring catastrophe: DeMarcus Lawrence, McCoy, and Poe will all command a lot of snaps. Depending on both how Poe looks and how Gallimore develops early on, it’s possible that the rookie earns a rotation with the massive veteran, but Poe is still likely a day one starter at the least.

After those three, though, it’s anyone’s guess. If Smith can get anywhere near his historic play from his days in San Francisco, he’ll lock down a role opposite Lawrence. Even then, Smith likely isn’t going to be seeing the high amount of snaps Robert Quinn did last year, which leaves the door open for Anae, Carter, Tyrone Crawford, Jalen Jelks, Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, and even potentially Randy Gregory if he gets reinstated.

As far as roster construction preferences go, it’s a bit difficult getting a read on McCarthy. As the Packers head coach, his approach to the defensive line evolved over time. His first three years saw the Packers run a 4-3 defense that tended to keep six defensive tackles and four defensive ends. Even after they switched to a hybrid 3-4 defense for the 2009 season, that tendency remained.

It wasn’t until after the 2013 season, when the Packers went one-and-done in the playoffs, that McCarthy’s approach to the defensive line changed. He began carrying more edge rushers than interior linemen, usually holding six edge rushers (designated as outside linebackers in their defense) and four interior linemen. Occasionally they’d keep an additional defensive tackle, but McCarthy almost always aimed to have six edge rushers for the final five seasons of his tenure in Green Bay.

For his part, Nolan has had a similar trend in his stints as defensive coordinator in the past. While Nolan hasn’t run a defense since 2014, when he did so with the Falcons, he generally preferred to keep at least five edge rushers on the roster, sometimes six. The two exceptions were his days in Baltimore, where he wasn’t necessarily running his own scheme but the scheme the Ravens are known for, and his time in Miami, where the Dolphins had two established edge rushers in Cameron Wake and Jason Taylor.

Between these two coaches’ histories and the Cowboys’ own roster numbers, it seems likely that the team will aim to keep just four defensive tackles and six defensive ends. As far as defensive tackle goes, it’s a given that McCoy, Poe, and Gallimore are three of them. Thus it would seem to be a competition between Woods and last year’s top rookie pick Trysten Hill for the final spot.

The edges are a bit more interesting. Lawrence is obviously making the roster, while Smith and Anae are likely locks as well. Crawford is a potential cap casualty still, but his leadership and versatility might make him too valuable to give up. That would leave just two more spots to fight over between five players, and Gregory’s potential return would only further complicate things.

With a shortened offseason program and potentially a shortened preseason as well, the Cowboys won’t have a ton of time to let these competitions play out fully. Maybe Smith surprises everyone and returns to his early-career dominance, rendering these decisions significantly less difficult. Maybe Anae proves everyone was wrong to overlook him in the draft. Or maybe someone else entirely emerges, in the way that guys like David Irving, Benson Mayowa, and George Selvie have in the past.

Either way, this Cowboys defensive line is going to see some fierce competition as they try to put together the best group of players for this new, hybrid defense that Nolan and Tomsula are trying to establish.