This year the Cowboys defensive line will look a lot different than it has in the past, both in names on the back of the jerseys and what we can expect these linemen to do in the game. Demarcus “Tank” Lawrence is still the leader of this group, but he should have a lot more to help him get to the QB in 2020 than he has in the past.
We will start in the middle of the new look defensive line. Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe were supposed to form the new DT tandem for the Cowboys but McCoy is gone due to injuries. Poe, while not what he was a few years ago, should still be an upgrade over Antwaun Woods. Poe had four sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year with the Panthers. PFF graded him at 71.1, which brings him in about average may be a little above average. The aforementioned Woods is now his back up, where he is probably suited best.
The other DT spot is where it gets interesting with McCoy out. The main contenders are former second round pick that many people have already labeled a bust in Trysten Hill or this year’s third round pick Neville Gallimore. Every report from Hill’s rookie year was concerning. Gallimore showed flashes of great tape when he was at OU and the Cowboys said they liked him enough to consider him in the second round. On passing downs you could see Tyrone Crawford reduce down from his end spot to play some DT, even though he said a few years ago he doesn’t like playing on the interior because of the beating your body takes compared to the edge. After Poe and his backup Woods, it is mostly question marks but there are a lot of options and potential for one of these guys to hit.
The edge rushers are where the excitement is for this group. Despite what you may hear on Twitter, Tank is very good. Sure, he didn’t have the sack numbers last year, but sacks aren’t everything. He had 13 hurries and 10 QB knockdowns to go along with his five sacks, so he was close to getting a lot more than his five. On top of that he is a very good run defender. Pro Football Focus has him as the 12th edge defender in the league and that is in a year that was considered a down year by many fans.
His new pash rushing mate, Everson Griffen, was brought in to replace Robert Quinn, who had a great year in Dallas. Griffen may not have quite the juice coming off the edge Quinn does, but he has a lot of moves on the outside, notably his spin move. Griffen is a better run defender than Quinn as well, PFF graded him as the 25th best edge defender in the league last season and at 32, he should still have some good football left in him.
The third man in this edge group is the one that could take this defense over the top, Aldon Smith. We all remember him wrecking offenses when he first came onto the scene and now after 5 years out of football, he is with the Dallas Cowboys. He has looked great in camp according to practice reports, but until its game action no one can really know what they have in Smith. He is quite a big larger than the last time he was on a football field but is in great shape. If he can get back to 70 percent of what he was before, then the Cowboys got a steal. Regardless of that, the fact he got his life together and got to a place to just get back into the NFL is an amazing story.
The last two spots went to Dorance Armstrong and Bradley Anae, who Daniel Jeremiah called the steal of the draft. The Cowboys are probably keeping 10 defensive linemen. Joe Jackson was the last man cut from this group and he is the only player the Cowboys waived to be claimed at this point. Armstrong has shown more than Jackson to this point and Anae being the recent draft pick has to be why those two were chosen over Jackson.
Now the wild card in all of this is Randy Gregory. He has been conditionally reinstated at this point. He won’t be available for practices or games until October. That should give him time to get back into game shape and ready to contribute down the stretch. Gregory is one of those guys that can roll out of bed and rush the passer, so that part should not be an issue for him. As many issues as he has had off the field so far, it is great to see him getting his life back to this point and hopefully be able to contribute to this defense. Once he is back in the fold it will be interesting to see what Mike Nolan does with all these pass rushers at his disposal.
This group should be significantly better than last year’s just on personnel alone. Not to mention Nolan and Jim Tomsula’s influence. Woods in an interview talked about some of the differences between Rod Marinelli’s defense and this one and the biggest take away is gap assignments. Before the line was just supposed to cause havoc, penetrating where they could, which frequently put their linebackers in bad situations and led to big runs. That along with the additions of Griffen, Poe, Gallimore, Smith, a healthy Crawford and possibly something out of Hill, this defensive line could wreck a few games and be what carries this defensive unit.