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How the Cowboys will construct the defensive line under Dan Quinn

Dan Quinn has big plans for this defense after a transforming offseason.

Atlanta Falcons v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Cowboys released six players to make room for their 24 incoming rookies, 13 of which were undrafted free agents. Among those six players turned loose was defensive tackle Antwaun Woods, who officially rejoined the team a mere week ago as an exclusive rights free agent. Woods wasn’t the only defensive lineman that was cut on Wednesday, as Walter Palmore and Ladarius Hamilton were both shown the door as well.

After an offseason in which the Cowboys signed three defensive linemen, tackles Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, and end Tarell Basham, and drafted three more, tackles Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna, and end Chauncey Golston, it makes sense that the team would look to trim a suddenly-crowded position group.

But this prompts a far-too-early question of how this defensive line room will look by the end of the preseason? While the specific names on that list could fluctuate based on training camp and preseason, amounts of players at each position are often based on coaching preference. For example, last offseason Mike McCarthy stated his preference for having six edge rushers and four interior defensive linemen. Sure enough, the Cowboys ended up with those exact numbers along the defensive line heading into Week 1.

And while McCarthy is still the head coach and likely still holds that preference, it seems that new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is more or less having his way with how this defense is constructed. Just looking at the height and arm length of the Cowboys’ new draft picks suggests that, at the very least, Quinn has a very large say in the defensive personnel.

So how does Quinn’s preference for the defensive line compare to McCarthy’s? After all, Quinn is a defensive line coach by trade, and admitted during his post-draft press conference that he’ll likely spend a lot of time in the defensive line room anyway.

In Atlanta, Quinn went through six different preseason roster cut sessions, which gives some valuable insight into his tendencies with regards to personnel and scheme. He’s talked already about the desire to have flexibility on defense, but it’s clear that Quinn prefers, in contrast to McCarthy, to have five defensive tackles and five edge rushers. In fact, Quinn’s Falcons teams went with that makeup on the defensive line in five of his six seasons there, with the lone exception being a year in which the team suffered a litany of injuries on the edges.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Cowboys end up keeping five or six edge rushers this year, as it will reveal a lot about just how much say Quinn has here in Dallas. But for now, let’s just assume the defensive coordinator gets his way and Dallas sticks with five of each.

After Wednesday’s cuts, the Cowboys have eight defensive tackles and seven defensive ends on their roster. If we’re sticking with Quinn’s established preference, that means three of these defensive tackles and two defensive ends are getting cut.

At defensive tackle, the most obvious candidates to be released are Austin Faoliu and Justin Hamilton. Faoliu is an undrafted free agent, and would likely be a practice squad candidate provided he has a good camp. Hamilton is a holdover from last year, just like Woods was, and fits almost exclusively as a 1-technique nose tackle in this scheme. That spot will be largely occupied by Urban and Watkins, as well as Bohanna, leaving precious few chances for Hamilton to stand out in preseason games.

Odds are high that both Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore will make the roster, as well as rookie Osa Odighizuwa given that he was drafted in the third round. That likely leaves two roster spots up for grabs between Urban, Watkins, and Bohanna. As a sixth-round pick, Bohanna is much less safe than Odighizuwa, and his practice squad eligibility could be the deciding factor if it really comes down to it. Watkins, who has yet to play in a majority of defensive snaps for a team in his career, was largely seen as a camp body when he was first signed, but Quinn went out of his way to mention Watkins in his press conference, meaning Watkins could be firmly in this mix.

The picture is a bit more clear on the ends. DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are obvious locks. Chauncey Golston, another third-round pick, is almost definitely safe too. Basham wasn’t an impact signing in free agency, but his two-year contract suggests he’s safe to be penciled in. That leaves one spot up for grabs between Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, and Ron’Dell Carter. That will be an interesting one for sure, given how divided fans became last season between Anae and Armstrong.

Either way, this defensive line stands to look significantly different from the way it did in Week 1 of last season. And considering how many of the Cowboys’ defensive woes stemmed from their porous trenches, that has to be a good thing.