The Dallas Cowboys open training camp in less than two weeks, and yet there are still a ton of questions to be answered as the team gets ready for the 2017 season. While it may not be the spot of the most important question — that goes to left guard — the defensive line provides the most questions marks.
Think of it, who do we feel confident about as the Dallas Cowboys prepare for the upcoming season? Maliek Collins? That’s about it for me.
The Cowboys have thrown numbers at the position for years now, with few solid answers as a result. Finally they invested draft capital in a player that doesn’t seem to have question marks about his health or character, just his position fit.
So here are my list of questions that I will look to have answered during training camp.
Where Does Taco Charlton fit on the Defensive Line?
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Taco Charlton in the first round in 2017. They claimed he would be the answer at right defensive end. In this scheme, that side of the line is typically reserved for guys with speed and the ability to put pressure on the quarterback’s blind side. But Charlton’s size and athleticism make him a better fit for the left side.
As our own Sean Martin notes, Charlton has been more impressive from the left side.
Is Benson Mayowa Ready to Take the Next Step?
Relatively unknown before the Dallas Cowboys signed him to a restricted free agent tender that the Oakland Raiders declined to match, Mayowa has all the look of a dominant 4-3 edge rusher.
His career had been relatively quiet until joining the Dallas Cowboys, where he led the team in sacks in 2016. Collecting six sacks in 13 games isn’t bad, but it isn’t dominant either. Dallas needs someone to step up and be a dominant pass rusher. Can that be Mayowa?
He needs to show improvement for the Cowboys to step forward as a defense.
Can Cedric Thornton Return to “Big Money” Play?
Prior to the 2016 season, the Dallas Cowboys signed Cedric Thornton to a four-year deal with $6 million guaranteed, expecting him to be the starting 1-tech. He couldn’t beat out Terrell McClain.
His first season with Dallas disappointed.
Thornton didn’t start a game for the first time since his rookie season and suffered a career-low in tackles. He had half a sack more than his career average of one sack per season, but that isn’t anything to get excited about.
Thornton will need to return to the form that earned him his contract, otherwise he may see another player take over the 1-tech.
Because Maliek Collins can play both defensive tackle positions, it’s possible that Thornton is relegated to a backup role again.
Will Returning Proper Scheme Fit Help Stephen Paea?
In 2014, Stephen Paea experienced a breakout season for the Chicago Bears as the 1-technique defensive tackle. Here’s a film review on Paea.
His six sacks were nearly three times that of his previous career high.
After playing defensive end in 3-4 schemes — first in Washington in 2015 and then in Cleveland in 2016 and experiencing career-lows — Paea returns to proper 1-tech in Rod Marinelli’s scheme.
In fact, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is the primary reason for Paea coming to Dallas. He hopes to resurrect his career in his most natural position.
The question is, will he?
What is Charles Tapper?
I’m as excited to see Charles Tapper suit up for the Dallas Cowboys as anyone. He was a steal in the 4th round of the 2016 draft and has a chance to help this team. The question remains because we have yet to see him in a 4-3 defense and in the NFL no less.
At the University of Oklahoma, he played out of position as a 3-4 end, and still led the team in sacks with seven. That is no small feat in the quick passing league that the Big 12 is.
While I am optimistic about his ability and fit in Dallas, I’m cautious because we have yet to see him play. Like me, Brian Martin thinks Tapper will improve the pass rush in 2017.
Hopefully that question will be answered during preseason. I have high hopes for what Tapper could bring, but like many say, “hope isn’t a strategy.”
Will David Irving Find Consistency After His Suspension?
The knock on David Irving had very little to do with his potential or his ability; it all came down to his consistency.
He’s already off to a rough start with a four-game suspension to start the season. Yes he’ll be allowed to practice with the team during training camp and play in preseason games, but he won’t be allowed to practice with the team during his suspension, which begins week 1.
A player with consistency issues needs reps to find a comfort level to make the plays they are capable of making on a week-to-week basis. Irving’s 2017 campaign is already starting off on the wrong foot.
Will Damontre Moore Finally Realize His Potential?
Coming out of Texas A&M, Damontre Moore was initially projected as a top-10 pick in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.
He had a productive career for the Aggies and showed versatility to play 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker. His poor combine performance saw him slide into the third round where the New York Giants added him to their stable of pass rushers.
In his second season with the Giants, he racked up a career-high 5.5 sacks. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start a game and was primarily a situational pass rusher.
Immaturity and consistency have killed his career to this point.
Moore and the Cowboys are hoping that yet another fresh start will lead to the player realizing his top-10 draft potential. Still just 24 years old, Moore has age on his side and still has a knack for finding the quarterback.
You can read a film review on Moore by Kevin Brady here.
Will DeMarcus Lawrence be Healthy for 2017?
All indications are that DeMarcus Lawrence will be healthy entering the 2017, but coming off a second back surgery in as many years, one has to be a bit skeptical.
Back issues are no small thing. Ask a friend who deals with chronic back pain, ruptured disks, pinched nerves, etc., and they will tell you that simple things can be hard to do and activity level decreases.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to play in the NFL with a bad back. Make no mistake, while he may be deemed healthy enough to play in 2017, Lawrence has a bad back. Like we saw with Tony Romo in the preseason of 2016, what is going to happen when Lawrence has someone land on him awkwardly?
After having eight sacks in the throw away season of 2015, Lawrence struggled to get going in 2016. He only played in nine games and recorded just one sack.
Getting back to form is going to be an uphill battle for Lawrence, who will have to get back in game shape even after getting back into football shape.
I think it’s likely that Lawrence starts the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Where will Tyrone Crawford Play in 2017?
Tyrone Crawford has been an enigma of sorts for the Dallas Cowboys.
Crawford finally seemed to find a home as the team’s 3-technique defensive tackle in 2014, after playing defensive end in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. His 2013 season was lost to a torn Achilles.
In 2015, playing primarily at the 3-tech, he experienced a career-high in sacks with 5 and tied his previous high in tackles.
With the team struggling to stop the run and the emergence of Maliek Collins in 2016, the team moved Crawford to defensive end yet again.
While he did have 4.5 sacks playing out of position, it’s left many to wonder: where does Crawford fit in 2017?
His best position by far is 3-tech, but the Cowboys will need players to step up on the edge so they can move him back inside full-time.
As you can see, the defensive line is loaded with question marks. Assuming that Maliek Collins is as good as he was in the second half of 2016, he is the only player that we don’t need to worry about.
The Dallas Cowboys defensive line looks to have a lot of potential. But at the moment, with all the question marks surrounding it, potential is all it is.
That potential needs to be realized.