With the announcement of the hiring of Monte Kiffin as the Cowboys new Defensive Coordinator, it is now a given that Dallas will transition to the 4-3 defense (4 down linemen consisting of 2 defensive ends and 2 defensive tackles with no one typically over the center and 3 linebackers) from the 3-4 defense (3 down linemen with a nose tackle over center and 4 linebackers, 2 outside and 2 inside). The classic 4-3 alignment typically requires players with a slightly different skill set than what you would need to run the typical 3-4.
It’s an oversimplification of course, but the typical 3-4 depends upon a big, strong nose tackle and big defensive tackles to tie up 4 or 5 offensive lineman giving the four faster, rangier linebackers room to flow to the ball on running plays, or rush the passer or drop back in coverage on passing plays. The Cowboys had difficulty at times with the 3-4 because they lacked the big tackles normally required for consistent success.
The 4-3 also requires an athletic defensive front but because there are more of them than there are linebackers, they play an integral role in both the run game and in rushing the quarterback (more so than the 3-4). They don’t need to be as huge and athleticism and speed are more important. It does require extremely talented linebackers and with Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and possibly Anthony Spencer expected back the Cowboys are in good shape there.
The transition however will require that DeMarcus Ware line up at defensive end instead of outside linebacker. Not a big deal to most casual observers since he lines up in almost the exact same spot as before with one major exception. For the first time in his career, he will be in a 3-point stance with his “hand in the dirt” the majority of the time. That is a bit of a big deal as the technique is significantly different.
That is exactly the reverse of the situation the Texans faced with Mario Williams in 2012. Williams, the #1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, was a prototypical defensive end in the 4-3. When Wade Phillips was hired as the defensive coordinator and implemented his 3-4 scheme, Mario became expendable as he wasn’t the ideal outside linebacker for that alignment. When he became a free agent, they did not seek to re-sign him and he went to the Buffalo Bills (who still run a 4-3).
So, now the Cowboys face a potential decision about DeMarcus Ware, easily their most notable defensive player. Some see him playing a “Simeon Rice” role in Kiffin’s defense referring to Rice’s pass rushing dominance in the now infamous “Tampa 2″ defense that helped the Buccanneers win the Super Bowl in 2003. Ware has certainly shown the athletic ability to rush the passer. That’s his trademark. His pass coverage responsibilities would be diminished in the 4-3 so he could peel his ears back and rush the quarterback.
But, the Cowboys have to be concerned about the nagging injuries he’s suffered since spraining his neck in 2009 and his drop in sack production in 2012 recording only 11.5 sacks (a good year for most players but sub par for D-Ware and he seemed to disappear at times). Ware is also the highest paid linebacker in the NFL based on average salary right now earning over $11 million dollars a season with much of his 6-year contract backloaded into the later years going as high as 16 million dollars in 2015. With only a projected $18 million dollars in cap room in 2013 right now, the Cowboys have many needs and very little money and draft picks to fill them.
That begs the question: would the Cowboys entertain the idea of trading DeMarcus Ware for meaningful additional draft picks? I think Jerry Jones might. The only era of success the Cowboys have enjoyed since Jerry Jones bought the team was a direct result of a blockbuster trade involving Herschel Walker, arguably his best player at the time. Those deals don’t come along very often. BUT, Jones and the Cowboys would be likely to get full value for Ware if he were made available. They would potentially get some decent additional draft picks to help fill the glaring needs along both the defensive and offensive lines (and at safety), would be unloading a giant contract (which the new team would have to absorb but could renegotiate with an extension), and would be more likely to get something of value for him now versus waiting to see if he can successfully make the transition and stay healthy. As it is, he is going to miss the entire off season program rehabbing from surgery on both his shoulder and elbow. So, he’ not going to get to work in the new system until preseason if even then.
I know it’s sacrilege to even suggest it, but if Jerry Jones wants every coach and player in Dallas to be “uncomfortable”, there is no greater way to send that message. And, it could make some sense for them to do it. The one upside of all the defensive injuries this year is that a fair amount of the roster got some playing time. We don’t have another D-Ware on the roster – not many teams do – but do we have players that could play defensive end and rush the passer? I think we do. And, quality defensive ends are usually easier to come by in the draft. Don’t expect a move anytime soon, but it is certainly one of the possibilities as the Cowboys look to re-tool and make a run at another Super Bowl. For better or worse, you’ve got our attention Jerry. Let’s hope you make the right moves. Go Cowboys!