IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys report to Oxnard for training camp in a few days (July 22). Several questions center around Rod Marinelli’s 2014-2015 Dallas Cowboys 4-3 defense … including:
Where will the pass rush come from after the notable personnel changes this offseason?
Kavner: The answer needs to be “everywhere,” because no one’s going to approach the 14-sack mark that DeMarcus Ware hit four times during his career with the Dallas Cowboys. With the emphasis on waves of linemen being used, I think we’re more likely to see a handful of sacks from a greater quantity of players. George Selvie needs to at least be 2013 Selvie. Henry Melton needs to be the seven-sack guy he’s been before, and if he’s not, Tyrone Crawford has to pick up the slack and reach the mighty expectations placed upon him. I also think Jeremy Mincey ends up producing more than people realize. My expectations for Anthony Spencer will be tempered until I actually see him able to move around, and the same goes for DeMarcus Lawrence, because I think great pass rushers usually need a year or two to adjust. If this defense is to shift gears and start becoming more competitive, a reliable pass rusher probably has to emerge. I think when it’s all said and done, Crawford and Mincey lead the pack, but no one reaches the double-digit sack mark.
Helman: For all the hype we’ve heard and all the importance we’ve placed there – from the signing of Henry Melton to the countless speculation about possibly drafting Aaron Donald – I have no choice but to look squarely at the three-technique spot. Jason Hatcher led the team in sacks from that position, and it’s the position people credit with making Rod Marinelli’s system work. The Cowboys took a chance on Henry Melton, recovering from an ACL tear, because Marinelli needed a three-technique to power his pass rush. Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain have also been touted as guys who can generate pressure from the interior. We saw what could happen when quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Peyton Manning had all day to pick apart this secondary, and the most effective way to stop that is to collapse the pocket. Marinelli was able to coax 11 sacks out of Hatcher last year – a league best for defensive tackles. Melton and the guys he rotates with are going to need to be similarly disruptive while the Dallas Cowboys young defensive ends find their footing.
Eatman: I don’t know if I can recall a position in recent memory where it’s so wide open heading into camp. Here we are less than a week away and no one can really tell you who the best player on the defensive line is. In fact, naming a four-man starting lineup would be a tough game to play. So predicting where the rush is coming from is just as difficult. I know there will be someone on this roster we’re barely talking about who will get himself in the mix in a Selvie-like fashion. But I have a good feeling about DeMarcus Lawrence. Even though he’s a rookie, I think he will be one of the best pass-rushers on this team. And if he doesn’t start right away, that might be a good thing. A fresh pass-rusher like him on third downs can quietly sneak around and get close to double-digit sacks. Lawrence has great size and quickness but his power will surprise a few tackles this year and sometimes that can be all you need to get to the quarterback. So while it’s a vague question, I’ll go with Lawrence to push and possibly pass DeMarcus Ware’s 2005 mark of eight sacks in his rookie season.
Broaddus: For a scheme that is built on applying pressure with just a four man rush, how Rod Marinelli and this staff manufacture it will be the key whether this defense finds itself in the top 15 or we are talking about a new coaching staff trying to figure that out. The responsibility of replacing DeMarcus Ware will not fall on the shoulders of one player but several. Guys like Henry Melton, George Selvie and DeMarcus Lawrence will be required to apply the bulk of that pressure but guys like Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain and Martez Wilson with an occasional blitz from Kyle Wilber and Orlando Scandrick out of the slot will be cards that Marinelli will play at some point and time during the season to generate pressure. In talking to members of the front office and coaching staff, as nice as it would be to have a player like Ware in his prime, their goal is to spread those sacks and pressures out among their front seven much like what we have seen from the Seahawks in 2013.
How much of a difference can Rod Marinelli make?
Kavner: I think sometimes people place the world on his shoulders, and he can only do so much. They want Marinelli to work magic, but in the end, the players have to be good enough. So, to answer the question, he can make a big difference, but I don’t know if it’ll be big enough to vault this defense into top 15 territory. He could, however, help work the Dallas Cowboys away from being the worst defense in the league. Maybe a top 20 defense is good enough to pair with an offense that has the firepower and line to be among the better units in the league. But for every George Selvie that Marinelli’s helped out, there’s another defensive lineman with potential that came through the Cowboys’ organization one week and left the next. Marinelli has a knack for getting the best out of the talent he’s been given, and I’m sure every defensive unit will love playing for him, but I’d temper expectations rather than assume he can work wonders with a largely unproven group.
Helman: He’s not going to turn the 2014-2015 Dallas Cowboys into one of the league’s elite defenses, but I do expect to see some kind of improvement with Rod Marinelli overseeing the entire defense. Obviously, the counter argument is that anything is an improvement from last in the league. We saw what Marinelli was able to do with a collection of ragtags (Marinelli’s Misfits) on the defensive line last year, and that stands to improve significantly if the majority of those guys can stay healthy in 2014. Aside from that, the rumblings about playing more man coverage should play to the strengths of this team’s defensive backs. Again, I don’t think the Cowboys’ secondary is going to be elite, but I do think Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are going to be improved this time around. The realistic expectation for this group is a small jump – say, the low-to-mid 20s, rather than dead last – which could help them make a playoff run. I think that’s possible with Marinelli calling the shots.
Eatman: It has to improve, right? Even without Ware, Hatcher and now Sean Lee, you just don’t expect this defense to be the worst in the league again. And a lot of that thinking stems from Marinelli. Another year in the 4-3 scheme should be beneficial to the entire group and Marinelli’s structure and organization has to count for something. But let’s not forget this – every time the defense did good things (and yes, there were a few of those moments), Marinelli would get the credit as the guy who’s “really in charge.” But yet, when the defense tanked towards the end it all went back to Monte Kiffin. It can’t be both ways. If the defense is better, it means the staff has to be better, too and that starts with Marinelli.
Broaddus: If this Dallas Cowboys defense is going to improve, I believe it will be because Rod Marinelli took over from Monte Kiffin. Where Marinelli will be different in what we observed with Kiffin, is that he will play more to the strengths of the players on the field. The mistake that Kiffin made in my opinion was that he did not tailor the scheme to fit his players. Asking Brandon Carr to play as an off zone corner puts him in a terrible position. Having Barry Church play off the hash, in two deep does him no favors. Play Carr up tight and let him beat up on those receivers – that’s his strength. Church needs to be down in the box, making every single tackle. A coach’s job first and for most, is to put his players in the best possible position to succeed. Monte Kiffin was unable to make that work and from what I know about Rod Marinelli, he will not make that mistake.
BREAKING IT DOWN – THE INSIDE RUSHMEN (DT’s):
What’s the Deal?
This may have been the biggest shakeup of any position this offseason. After losing Jason Hatcher, the Dallas Cowboys brought in their most significant addition of the offseason in Henry Melton. But it’s still to be determined after coming off ACL surgery if Melton can get back to the six and seven sack player he was in 2011 and 2012. Tyrone Crawford’s expected to make a big jump in 2014 also coming off a major injury, and he has the ability to play inside or bump outside. Nick Hayden, a starter last year, will be competing to do the same in 2014, but he’ll be pushed by newcomer Terrell McClain. Undrafted rookie Davon Coleman was a priority signing after the draft and hasn’t disappointed. Ben Bass will also try to make his mark coming off injury, while seventh-round pick Ken Bishop competes for a spot on the roster.
Still Need to Find Out:
If Melton can get back to being the player Rod Marinelli had in Chicago. He never had the double-digit sack type of season that Hatcher had last year, but he was consistently with seven sacks in 2011 and six in 2012 before the injury in 2013. The deal Melton signed in Dallas lets the Cowboys out if Melton doesn’t get back to being that type of player, but they have a lot of confidence that he can get healthy and become one of the better defensive tackles in the league. The Cowboys may need for that to happen if they’re to start building a pass rush that struggled in 2013. If Melton can reach that seven-sack total once again, he’ll have done his job in Dallas. So far, we haven’t seen much of him, and he may need some more time in camp before he’s healthy and ready to go.
The first is 11 – as in, the number of sacks Hatcher provided last year. The other is zero – the amount of sacks the four likely contenders for the two starting defensive tackle spots this year had last season. This group is much more about potential than past production. Melton’s had some big seasons but went without a sack in three games last year. Hayden started all last season and scored a touchdown, but his contributions didn’t include a sack. McClain played in 16 games without a start or a sack. Crawford missed the whole year with his Achilles injury. There’s a lot of potential for all of these players, but the majority of their production either happened prior to 2013 or has not yet occurred, and they have some big shoes to fill after Hatcher’s spectacular season. All eyes will be on Melton, though, considering he was the splash signing.
Ready to Breakout?
Crawford would be a popular answer here, but we’re still not sure if he ends up playing more end or tackle. So let’s go with a player we know will be playing the tackle position, and that’s McClain. We saw with Hatcher how moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and getting more playing time could do wonders. The same could be the case for McClain after moving to Dallas’ 4-3 from Houston’s 3-4. He has some explosiveness that may have been more difficult to translate into sacks in the Texans’ system as a nose tackle than it would be with the Cowboys. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him winning a starting job. He’s only got one career sack, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him triple that in Dallas this year.
Battle To Watch:
As we look ahead to camp in Oxnard, there is no doubt in my mind that Hayden will be in a battle to continue starting on this line. This past offseason has brought options with the additions of Terrell McClain and Ken Bishop, but also the return of Tyrone Crawford after missing the entire season. McClain lined up at the three during OTAs and minicamps for Henry Melton, who will be ready for training camp, but I think the better fit for him is at that spot which currently belongs to Hayden
BREAKING IT DOWN – THE OUTSIDE RUSHMEN (DE’s):
What’s the Deal?
We’re about to find out what the Cowboys’ collection of unsung pass rushers can amount to. The leading sack artist among this team’s defensive ends, Anthony Spencer, is still recovering from surgery and likely won’t be ready for training camp. That leaves newly-signed free agent Jeremy Mincey, with 20 career sacks, to lead a group of unknowns. Chief among those is rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, who the Dallas Cowboys drafted No. 34 overall after trading away a third round pick. The rookie joins a rotation currently staffed by Mincey and George Selvie, not to mention fellow unprovens like Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass. The hope is that Spencer, the lone Pro Bowler in the group, can recover enough to contribute in some fashion.
Still Need to Find Out:
What exactly Crawford’s role is on this defensive front. The third-year Boise State star is a jack of all trades, with potential as both a defensive end and a pass-rushing defensive tackle – depending on the situation. We haven’t seen any of this ability manifest itself, mainly because Crawford was injured for all of 2013 and his offseason practices in 2014 were non-contact. The expectations are pretty high for Crawford, especially considering he has yet to register a career sack. The Cowboys need to figure out which spot – or spots – he can be most effective from, and let him loose.
Just last year, the Cowboys only carried four defensive ends on the final roster – but two of those four were perennial Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware and 2012 Pro Bowler Spencer, who was expected to be healthy for the 2013 season. The Cowboys don’t have nearly that kind of track record with this current group. They also have the stated intention of creating a rotation of multiple waves of linemen, rather than a set line of four. With those two things in mind, it seems reasonable to expect them to carry more defensive ends this time around – perhaps six, instead. Mincey, Selvie, Lawrence and Crawford all look like locks. That will create competition for the final few spots between the likes of Bass, Caesar Rayford, Ben Gardner, and Martez Wilson.
Ready to Breakout?
A case can be made for Crawford in this spot, but it’s got to be Lawrence. The Dallas Cowboys traded away their No. 47 and No. 78 picks in this spring’s draft to take Lawrence 34th overall. The reasoning was that Lawrence fit perfectly as a pass-rushing, right defense end, and the team saw him as a first-round talent. Obviously, one season isn’t going to determine the course of Lawrence’s career, but the Cowboys could use a breakout rookie campaign from one of their top talents if their pass rush is going to improve in 2014.
Battle to Watch:
What we learned post-draft from new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was the plan to bring DeMarcus Lawrence along slowly as the right defensive end and let unrestricted free agent Jeremy Mincey start on that side ahead of Lawrence until he learned the ropes. When practices opened, it was Lawrence that was running with the first defense while Mincey was dealing with a small setback.
A Look At The 2013 Season For The DTs
Henry Melton — Then a member of the Chicago Bears, Melton last a grand total of three weeks after his 44-tackle, six-sacks 2012 season. He was carted off the field with a torn ACL during Chicago’s 40-23 win against Pittsburgh, ending his season in mid-September. It was a huge loss for the Bears, as Melton cranked out 68 tackles and 13 sacks from the three-technique spot in the two seasons prior to that.
Nick Hayden —It says a lot about the Dallas Cowboys defensive line in 2013 that Hayden was one of just two guys to play in all 16 games. While the rest of the line rotated around him, Hayden put together a decent season – especially considering he was viewed as a camp body during the preseason. He notched 44 tackles, mainly as a run-stuffer, and he famously recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the win against the Vikings. He did not managed a single sack all season, however.
Terrell McClain — McClain is the lesser-known of the new defensive tackles, as he doesn’t boast the Pro Bowl pedigree of Henry Melton. He played all 16 games for the Texans, last season, though that was as a nose tackle in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. He performed admirably, but it was mostly just in spot duty – he didn’t record a start and he managed just 10 tackles. That was a welcome change from the 2012 season, however, as he appeared in just four games and didn’t record any stats.
Ben Bass — Much like his counterpart Tyrone Crawford, Bass’ 2013 season ended before it could even get started. Bass dislocated his shoulder the Thursday before the season opener against New York and wound up on season-ending injured reserve, as the Cowboys could not afford to hold a roster spot for him. It was his second stint on IR, as he wound up missing the last few weeks of the 2012 season with an ankle injury.
Ken Bishop — The Cowboys were impressed enough by Bishop’s efforts at Northern Illinois that they invited him to Valley Ranch as one of their pre-draft visits. His statline as a college nose tackle is definitely impressive – Bishop made 70 tackles as an interior defensive lineman last season. On top of that astonishing number, he added seven tackles for loss to earn consensus first-team All-MAC honors.
Davon Coleman — Depending on who you talk to, there were those that were more impressed by Coleman, who went undrafted, than his college teammate Will Sutton, a third round pick. His college production certainly merits that, as he notched 165 tackles, 31 tackles for loss and 16 sacks in four seasons. The 2013 season was probably his best, as he tied for the team lead with 8.5 sacks as a starter alongside Sutton.
Amobi Okoye – Another player hoping to bounce back after missing the 2013 season with health concerns. A medical issue sidelined Okoye for the entirety of last season, but he has proven he still has some gas in the tank. Playing for the Chicago Bears in 2011 and 2012, he managed 40 combined tackles and five combined sacks as a rotational, non-starter.
Chris Whaley — Whaley was one of Texas’ first players signed to an undrafted contract after the Longhorns failed to produce a draft pick this past spring. What’s impressive about that is Whaley didn’t play the final month of his last season in Austin, after he sustained a knee injury. He still managed an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection. Interestingly, Whaley is a former Longhorn running back who wound up at defensive tackle – which is the same career trajectory as his new teammate Henry Melton.
Pro Scout Bryan Broaddus on what he’s looking for in 2014: This group has a chance to have a really nice one-two punch with Henry Melton and Terrell McClain inside. Tyrone Crawford will also see some action as well in the nickel packages and some base looks as well. Keep an eye on the progress of Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop as well. Both of these rookies really were impressive when I had a chance to study them off their college tape in this past draft. Veterans Nick Hayden and Ben Bass also return to be part of the rotation. Hayden was the starter in 2013 but I believe that you will see a serious challenge from McClain who can not only play with power at that one technique but also has better quickness and the pass rush moves that Hayden does not have. If this defense is going to improve in applying pressure, I believe that it’s going to have to start with these players at tackle.
A Look At The 2013 Season for the DEs
Anthony Spencer – A knee injury early in training camp lingered even into the regular season, limiting Spencer to just one game before it was determined he needed microfracture knee surgery, which landed him on IR for most of the year.
George Selvie – One of the most surprising performances by any player last year. After arriving early in camp just to fill out the roster, Selvie became one of the best players on the line. His career-high seven sacks even bested DeMarcus Ware’s output in 2013.
Tyrone Crawford – He didn’t make it one practice in Oxnard last year before an Achilles injury ended his entire season. The Cowboys were hoping for big things out of Crawford last year and that hasn’t changed heading into this season.
Jeremy Mincey – Mincey began his sixth year in the pros in Jacksonville, but was released in December for a variety of reasons. He landed on his feet with the Broncos and was a rotational player en route to the Super Bowl. Mincey had a sack in the playoffs against the Chargers, giving him two sacks in four career postseason games.
Caesar Rayford – Rayford shined with the Colts in the preseason last year but it didn’t carry over in Dallas after the Cowboys traded a seventh-round pick for him. He played in just seven games but mostly on special teams and didn’t record a stat.
Martez Wilson – Wilson joined the team late in the season and only played in a couple of games. He did record one quarterback pressure in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Raiders. He’s still making the transition from linebacker to end.
DeMarcus Lawrence – Lawrence led Boise State in sacks for the second straight year in 2013, recording 10.5 for the Broncos. That was a slight improvement from his junior season when also led the squad with 9.5 sacks. Lawrence also led the team last season with 20.5 tackles for loss.
Ben Gardner – Still earned All-Pac 12 honors at Stanford as a senior, despite missing the final three games due to injury. Gardner finished with 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and a blocked punt during his final season at Stanford.
Dartwan Bush – Battled through injuries last year at Texas Tech, which cost him three games. Finished with five tackles for loss and three sacks.
Pro Scout Bryan Broaddus on what he’s looking for in 2014: You will hear the phase “Attack in Waves” a bunch in the next few weeks from this front office and coaching staff as we work our way through training camp. There was a clear effort in the offseason to try and not only add quality players, but build depth as well. The player that I am most interested in seeing how he progresses in camp is Martez Wilson. There is something about his game that makes me believe that he has a chance to excel playing as a defensive end, despite how he views himself as a linebacker. During the early sessions of OTA and minicamp, he was playing strictly on that right side, but as those final practices were taking place, he was getting action on the left as well. When these coaches start moving a player around, it just tells me that they are interested in trying to find him a place to play and want to make him part of the rotation. When I study Wilson’s game, the trait that jumps out on tape is his quickness. He has shown the ability in these practices to get on the blocker putting pressure on them. Where he has the least amount of experience is with his pass rush moves, but you can see that working with Leon Lett has put him on the right path for development.