The NFL has evolved into a passing league. The times of the bruiser fullback and otherworldly defensive tackles are slowly fading away. While everyone is aware of the near extinction of the fullback, few discuss the effect of a passing league on the defensive tackle position.
Players like Randy White and Bob Lilly might not even be household names today. Aaron Donald is one of the exceptions, but the defensive tackle position has lost its prestige around the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys have yet to solve their issues at defensive tackle.
Eight years ago, Tyrone Crawford finished with 41 quarterback pressures, 24 tackles, two forced fumbles, and four sacks. 2014 was a good year for the Cowboys' defensive tackle.
That 2014 season would be the last time the Cowboys had a player rank inside the top 32 defensive tackles by PFF grading. And this is only among players that play more than 500 snaps in a season, meaning that only roughly 64 players qualify in a given year.
It has been eight years since the Cowboys had an above-average defensive tackle by PFF grading. The Cowboys have, not coincidentally, finished as a top 16 defense against the run just three times in the last ten years, per rbsdm.com.
Yes, you read that right, 70% of the time the Cowboys finished as a bottom-half rushing defense in the league over the last 10 years. They have just as many bottom-five finishes as top-half finishes. The Dallas rushing defense has struggled for years now.
Since 2014, Dallas has seen 32 defensive tackles take a snap for the team. Of those players, there have been 0 All-Pro selections, 0 Pro-Bowlers, and only Tyrone Crawford and Maleik Collins rank inside the top-30 of approximate value for all Cowboys players over the last eight years.
There has been a failure at the defensive tackle position. But the issue is that this trend will likely worsen before it improves. Because with Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban both set to hit free agency, 33% of the Cowboys' 2021 defensive tackle snaps are out the door.
Dallas is likely looking at Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill, Quinton Bohanna, and Neville Gallimore anchoring the defensive line. With those four names, you probably think, "it's not great, but they can get the job done because we have more pressing needs." And that is exactly right, but it is also what is wrong with the Dallas philosophy.
Because Dallas has masterfully found slightly below-average defensive linemen for the past ten years and walked into the season with a remarkably uninspiring defensive tackle unit. But because defensive tackle is commonly an afterthought, paired with the fact that there will always be a more pressing positional need, the team ahs never properly addressed the defensive tackle position.
Unless your name is Aaron Donald, defensive tackles will not sell jerseys like linebackers, receivers, and cornerbacks. So why address it when your defensive tackle position is "fine."
This has been the Dallas way since Jay Ratliff stopped playing for them in 2013. As a result, they will never have a particularly daunting rushing defense. It will sometimes be decent, but there will never be a Dallas defensive line where opponents refuse to run the ball.
Take 2021, where the Cowboys' defense had its best season in the past two decades. At times, Dallas' defense looked like the best in football. But the clear Achilles heel was their inability to stop the run.
The defense couldn't stop the run in their playoff loss. And a big reason for this is because out of the 132 defensive tackles who played more than 250 snaps in 2021, Dallas' highest-ranking defender was Carlos Watkins at 64.
Osa Odighizuwa looks promising and coincidentally is the third-earliest pick the Cowboys have used on a defensive tackle since 2000. But Odighizuwa will likely not be the defensive tackle that anchors the run defense for years to come. Instead, he will be a solid DT, and he will be just good enough to ensure Dallas continues to their philosophy. Odighizuwa would be a perfect secondary defensive tackle in the future if they could find a game-changing interior player.
But the reality is that players like Odighizuwa, Hill, and Gallimore make a career out of playing in Dallas because they are right on the line of good enough to prove that the Cowboys don't need to use serious capital to invest in the defensive tackle position.
And as a result, the defensive tackle will remain average at best, the rushing defense will never be particularly formidable, and the cycle will eventually continue with a new batch of third- and fourth-round DTs.
The only way to change this would be to finally prioritize defensive tackle. This is not an argument for the Cowboys to use the 24th pick on an interior defensive lineman. But it wouldn't be the wrong move, and eventually, Dallas has to break the cycle of "DT isn't the biggest priority."
Granted, it is not the most pressing need for the Cowboys this year. Linebacker and the offensive line are clearly more depleted. But just because the defensive tackle isn't as prominent as it used to be doesn't mean the Cowboys should ignore it. Dallas' rushing defense has been a relatively weaker aspect of this team for ten years now.
The only way that will change is if they decide to devote capital to a position group that has been kicked to the curb for years now. A similar argument can be made for safety. If you continue to commit mediocre resources into filling these ignored positions, you will continue to get mediocre results.
Here is the point: if the best player available at pick 24 is a defensive tackle, there might be a willingness to reach on a linebacker or offensive lineman instead. But do the right thing, tackle the defensive tackle, and watch the boost the run defense will get.
That player might not sell as many jerseys as a linebacker would, but it doesn't make him any less valuable to the team. The Cowboys need to stop ignoring defensive tackle because it has been an issue for ten years now.