The Dallas Cowboys have been thin and undersized along the defensive line for many years and the 2016 offseason needs to change this problem – finally.
The Dallas Cowboys have had a serious identity crisis going on within the defensive line for years, and now it’s time for that to stop. Whether it be in free agency in March or the NFL draft come April, the Cowboys have to get serious about ideal prospects for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 alignment.
If you’re familiar with Marinelli’s most successful defense while working under then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin following the new millennium, then you can see that there’s lacking elements in Dallas right now on defense. The 2001 Bucs, winners of Super Bowl XXXVII over the Oakland Raiders, fielded one of the best defensive units in NFL history, and they did so with key pieces along the defensive line that Dallas has yet to bring forth.
Granted, the Cowboys don’t have to duplicate the Buccaneers front in every way. That’s not even possible given chronology and the players currently on the Cowboys roster.
Then again, the fundamental strength of any defense, regardless of the alignment upfront, is power and speed upfront. As we sit right now, there’s some speed up on the line, especially if youngsters like David Irving and Chris Whaley play an entire season with the Cowboys in 2016 – Whaley has yet to be healthy at all during his two years out of University of Texas.
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But what about power? What about size?
How about a true run stuffer, something that Marinelli highly coveted with the Bucs and was able to acquire in Anthony McFarland. At 6’0” and 300 pounds, the former Louisiana State University lineman teamed with Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp to create one of the top defensive interiors in NFL history.
Yes, linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive end Simeon Rice were also studs, but their skills were certainly magnified with the presence of two 300-pound defensive tackles that were both first-round selections in their respective drafts – Sapp the 12th selection in 1995 and McFarland the 15th pick in 1999.
Marinelli seems sold on the idea that four-year veteran Tyrone Crawford is the Cowboys’ version of Sapp, or the 3-technique under tackle. If he’s sold, then I guess I am too, although I still scratch my head on this one. The former Boise State University lineman is a bit taller and leaner than Sapp was, but Crawford has shown some ability where rushing the passer and penetrating the A-gap is concerned. It’s a safe bet that he’d be even more active if the Cowboys created more long passing situations.
In order to do this, the Cowboys have to stop being so average against the run, period.
The Cowboys gave up 120 yards rushing per game last season, a mark that used to spell near-invincibility for Dallas when Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith lined up in the backfield.
Let that sink in.
In 2014, the Cowboys gave up 103 yards per game thanks mainly to dominant time of possession by the offense and obviously more points scored. Had Dallas had a truly dominant front four, they might well have met the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX a year ago.
In 1992, Dallas finished 13-3 while winning both the NFC East and Super Bowl XXVII – that defense finished ranked No.1 in the NFL, which included the top-ranked run defense that gave up just 77 yards per game.
The Cowboys can reach that status again by getting bigger and stronger along the interior of the line.
Crawford, Irving and Whaley average just under 277 pounds and represent the more athletic playmakers along the defensive interior.
Elsewhere, there’s pending free agent Nick Hayden, who generally starts alongside Crawford. At 6’4” and 304 pounds, this eight-year veteran brings more weight, but also a good measure of height which doesn’t exactly create an immovable object inside. This is where Dallas could use both an upgrade and a different kind of player.
On the roster right now is former University of Oklahoma defensive tackle Casey Walker. Here’s an interior lineman with some size at 6’1” and 340 pounds. Walker was undrafted in 2013 and has been involved with four teams already, counting the Cowboys. Having attended Garland High School, just outside of Dallas, it doesn’t seem like Walker has the skill set to play often on running downs in the NFL – he looks better suited to play nose guard in the 3-4 alignment.
In fact, most of the 2016 free agent class that seem to suit this need for the Cowboys are coming from a different system. There’s 3-4 defensive alignments everywhere in the NFL, which probably makes guys like Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison of the New York Jets, Malik Jackson of the Denver Broncos and Ian Williams of the San Francisco 49ers both not an ideal fit and probably too expensive.
The NFL draft might be the best way to fill this need as the Cowboys wouldn’t have to use a first round pick on this position. Despite its 3-4 scheme, University of Alabama is generally a great place to find size and strength for the defensive line. Going that direction enables a 4-3 team like the Cowboys to mold this type of player exactly how they want. Andrew Billings of Baylor University or Hassan Ridgeway of Texas could be players chosen beyond the first round.
There’s no shortage of options for the Cowboys where finding a true, run-stuffing nose tackle is concerned. But this team has to get out of the business of playing undersized along the interior of the defensive front. The Cowboys did this for years with Jay Ratliff at nose guard in the now-scrapped 3-4 scheme and it never translated to a great defense at all. Dallas needs to acquire new talent because clear is the fact that a 1-technique specialist is not on the roster right now.