Dallas Cowboys: Why defensive line is the top priority

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 25: Da'Ron Payne
AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 25: Da'Ron Payne /

The Dallas Cowboys have many offseason questions, but none are bigger than a defensive line that needs more numbers and talent.

The Dallas Cowboys returned to their historic 4-3 defensive front following the 8-8 season of 2012, which also included the financially-driven departure of franchise sack-leader DeMarcus Ware. Eight years operating out of the 3-4 defensive front never yielded a championship-caliber defense and it’s a solid argument that this very weakness is why now-retired quarterback Tony Romo never advanced to an NFC championship game, let alone a Super Bowl.

In each year since ’12, the Dallas Cowboys have spent exactly one first-round draft pick on a defensive linemen and the results are obvious. That selection came just a year ago, so the jury is still out on that pick.

Tired of hearing the phrase ‘bend, don’t break’ when describing the Dallas defense?

If so, it’s time for the Dallas Cowboys to get serious about building a stronger defensive line. While the results have been beyond impressive following the first-round selections of offensive lineman like Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, the same might be said if and when the Cowboys spend significant resources on a defensive line that needs help.

While it’s true that DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving lead the way in terms of play-making ability along the defensive line, it’s also true that neither may be in the picture for long in Dallas. Both of these still-young players have served suspensions over the last two seasons and it’s also worth noting that Lawrence has already had back issues at the tender age of 25. There’s also rumors floating that the Dallas Cowboys might actually part ways with Irving for reasons that might include that previous suspension or a pretty serious concussion suffered in the final quarter of last season that saw the 6’7” beast miss the final push for the playoffs.

Now, I’m of the belief that Lawrence and Irving are wearing blue stars on their helmets in 2018 and there’s still the possibility that both may end up with the Cowboys in coming years.

But who else will join them?

Back to the draft: The Cowboys opened their return to the 4-3 by selecting Frederick, a center, in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. In 2014, the franchise went with Martin, a guard. In 2015, the Cowboys led off with Byron Jones, supposedly a versatile defensive back who’s now entering his fourth season without a defined position.

In 2016, Dallas went with running back Ezekiel Elliott, which certainly helped the defense, but did little to rush opposing quarterbacks. In 2017, the Cowboys did lead off with defensive end Taco Charlton, who might be a long-term answer in the edge-rusher neighborhood, but time will tell.

It’s important to point out that both Lawrence and Randy Gregory were second-round picks in ’14 and ’15, respectively, but the latter of those two selections likely never plays in the NFL again, let alone becomes a reliable edge rusher for America’s Team.

What also hurts Dallas right now is a few notable free agent acquisitions over the last couple of offseasons that didn’t amount to much. Names like Cedric Thornton, Stephen Paea and Demontre Moore did little to nothing in terms of solidifying even a rotational system for the Cowboys, and obviously no starters.

Do we know exactly where Charles Tapper and Maliek Collins are headed in talking about players already on the roster? Are you waiting for more from Tyrone Crawford, who’s heading into his seventh year and is also really expensive?

Yes, there’s still other candidates to help out in the future, but are these blue-chip prospects that really push this defensive front to new heights?

Yes, there are holes to fill and this is why the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium should be a huge opportunity to change the defensive culture of the Dallas Cowboys. I’m all for taking the best player available at any given moment, but if you’re out of eggs while trying to make an omelette and you see that toilet paper is a great buy at that moment, you still go with the eggs. Drafting for need is only a problem if that need is reached for, which I would expect the Cowboys to avoid.

With a boatload of quarterbacks expected to be selected in the first-round next April, the Cowboys should have every opportunity to grab an interior defender like Christian Wilkins of Clemson or Da’Ron Payne of Alabama.

Or, how about a quick edge rusher like Clelin Ferrell, also of Clemson, or lightening-fast Arden Key of LSU?

Next: Big contract decisions taking center stage in Big D

One, or more, of those college prospects will be available when the Dallas Cowboys go on the clock with the 19th pick of the first round, and it’s time for the Cowboys to give a depleted defensive line the help that it urgently needs, period.