Back before the start of the 2013 season I wrote this article entitled “Dallas Cowboys Defensive Line Under Pressure” in which I discussed the bad feeling I had about the Cowboys projected defensive line starters. At the time, analysts were ignoring the DL because they felt the biggest weakness was the safety position. While I didn’t think safety was set, I certainly had bigger concerns about the defensive line.
My gut told me back in August 2013 that then defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s scheme was not going to work with the defensive line personnel. Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense is dependent on quarterback pressure. If there’s no QB pressure, the entire scheme breaks down.
Before last preseason, projected starting defensive end DeMarcus Ware was coming off a below average 2012 year with 11.5 sacks in an injury riddled season where he sustained shoulder and elbow injuries (sound familiar?), and I questioned if DeMarcus could continue his torrential career sacks pace. The other two key projected starting linemen were defensive end Anthony Spencer (lost for the season to injury) who also had a career year with 11 sacks but, again, could he recreate that production, and defensive tackles Jay Ratliff (lost for the year due to injury and eventually cut) was oft injured throughout 2012.
Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher had everything to prove in his contract year, and was the DL MVP with his 11 sacks. Some were claiming that new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli would be able to mask any deficiencies along the D-Line, but I did not agree with that position.
Fast forward to the present, and I have the same concerns about the defensive line now that I had last preseason. Both defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Anthony Spencer free agent signings were necessary to fill the voids left by the now departed Ware and Hatcher, but Melton and Spencer carry question marks.
Melton is coming off a substantial injury last season in which he tore is ACL. So, exit injured Jay Ratliff at DT, enter injured Henry Melton at DT. Spencer is coming off an equally devastating injury to his left knee in which he required surgery in the preseason. Exit injured Anthony Spencer at DE, enter injured Anthony Spencer at DE in 2014. You see where I’m going with this?
But wait, there’s more; the guy who really stepped up last season at defensive end was George Selvie who had the second most sacks on the team with seven. That was by far the highest number of sacks in Selvie’s career, so the question must be asked if he can produce at that level again in 2014?
The Cowboys went out and signed themselves DT Terrell McClain who has 20 tackles and one sack in 33 games and journeyman defensive end Jeremy Mincey who has 20 sacks in his seven-year professional career. Can anyone honestly say either of those players is going to make a huge impact for the Cowboys in 2014?
The other roster defensive ends are Tyrone Crawford who’s coming off an Achilles injury and has underwhelmed in his two seasons with the Cowboys, and Kyle Wilber who filled in at linebacker and had two sacks. Wilber in my mind has potential to make a Selvie-like impact, but again it’s all potential.
For the Cowboys defensive tackle depth, they get back second year man Ben Bass who has shown flashes in the past but again is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury. The team also brings back starting DT Nick Hayden who had no sacks and was serviceable last season. The DT roster is rounded out by Frank Kearse who has 1.5 sacks in 24 career games.
What that leaves the Cowboys is a starting DT coming off major knee surgery (Melton) and a starting defensive tackle who had no sacks last season (Hayden). At defensive end the Cowboys bring back Anthony Spencer who’s coming off a major knee injury and journeyman George Selvie who may or may not be able to reproduce his career-high seven sacks from 2013.
Does that starting lineup really thrill anyone? Who’s the proven, veteran “Rushman” as Marinelli refers to them, who is going to get this team Hatcher/Ware’s 2013 season’s lost 17 sacks? Is Spencer’s knee good to go? Is Melton ready to rumble on his busted wheel? Can Selvie double his production? Can Hayden get any sacks? I’m just being honest here, the Cowboys starting defensive line rotation doesn’t put the fear in any QB’s hearts at this point.
In reviewing the current projected starters, I do not see how the Cowboys could draft any position besides D-line. I know it would be fun and very circus-like to draft Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. I realize there are still substantial holes at safety. But, come on, if the Cowboys don’t address the defensive line again in this year’s draft, they’re going to force me to write this story for a third time next April.
Follow Matt Thornton on Twitter: @MattsCowboys