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Dallas Does A Defensive Rebuild

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The Dallas defense has found success -- in rebuilding. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
The Dallas defense has found success -- in rebuilding. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

Time has a way of fostering harsh wake-up calls.

Scarcely a year ago, the Dallas Cowboys could list their defense as an asset. The rising play of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff headed their D-line. A healthy Bruce Carter endorsed the idea of an elite 1-2 punch of young linebackers. Brandon Carr was coming off a good year; Morris Claiborne’s outlook was still bright. With the drafting of J.J. Wilcox and the signing of veteran Will Allen, even the embattled safety position held traces of promise.

One calamitous season on defense, combined with a couple expiring contracts, changed everything.

But on with the future. Among signed free agents, DT Henry Melton is the only one that’s bankable as a legit contributor — as in possible double-digit sacks and tackles for losses. So what about the draftees? What can we expect from the top defensive players taken, and from the handful of seventh-rounders?

DeMarcus Lawrence

A potent four-man rush underlies Marinelli’s scheme. It starts on the perimeter. Set the edge, funnel the run game inside, and visibly obstruct the quarterback’s first option. That’s Lawrence’s job.

Lawrence has versatility, but as of now, he’s a technique-oriented pass-rusher. But at 251 pounds, he can add the weight to be a bull-rusher soon enough. To me, the biggest concern from his scouting report is his first step, described as “good, not great.” Given the range of drops and short-read throws that NFL quarterbacks — from elite to sub-par — effectively employed against the Cowboys last year, timing is beyond crucial. Ultimately, his production could hinge on mental stuff: his learning curve, his read-react processing skills, and his receptivity to Marinelli’s coaching.

Will the defensive end from Boise State be impacted by Spencer’s recovery? With the amount already paid to Spencer, the ‘Boys presumably want the veteran going full throttle when his knee is ready. But that prospect remains dim. George Selvie was a silver lining last year with seven sacks and eight tackles for losses. It’s more likely he and Lawrence will both start on opening day.

Anthony Hitchens

Hitchens is a curious pick for multiple reasons: A weak-sider in college, he clocks in at 240 pounds and boasts good ball awareness and tackling form as evidenced by his 236 career stops at Michigan. But the ‘Boys need cover skills in the outside linebackers badly. That element of Hitchens’ learning curve will determine whether he takes Carter’s job. Either way, the competition can’t hurt.

Then there’s the notion of him backing Sean Lee in the middle. That could throw DeVonte Holloman, a surprise pick for his preseason defense and regular-season special teams play, into a three-way battle for snaps at the strong-side spot. Not as likely a scenario, perhaps, but no matter how you dissect Hitchens as a pick, he presents Dallas with options.

In the end, I think Carter retains the starting job, despite his disconcerting dip in pass coverage. But given that and the unit’s general desperateness for improvement, Hitchens, like Lawrence, is sure to get his chances.

Seventh-Round Sleepers

Every year, we see more seventh-round picks — and undrafted free agents — finding their ways onto 53-man rosters. The Cowboys took five such players: DE Ben Gardner (Stanford), OLB Will Smith (Texas Tech), S Ahmad Dixon (Baylor), DT Ken Bishop (Northern Illinois and CB Terrance Mitchell (Oregon). Who might actually see the field?

Dallas has explicitly backed J.J. Wilcox as its second safety. But no position is more open to competition. Dixon is in, and strictly for the same kind of secondary concerns, Mitchell is less of a sleeper. I could easily see the ‘Boys giving the newcomer a chance over B.W. Webb as their fourth or fifth corner.

Ultimately, the other guys are practice squad men for 2014. But that’s OK. The first step to rebuilding a defense is bringing in and solidifying some depth. Thanks to a quiet-but-savvy offseason, the Cowboys have finally begun to achieve that.