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Cowboys Defensive Line is All Question Marks for Training Camp

John Williams

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Tyrone Crawford
Michael Ainsworth / The Dallas Morning News

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.

Will Benson Mayowa Lose His Starting Job This Season? 2

New York Giants Offensive Tackle Ereck Flowers #74 (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

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.

Jess Haynie thinks Benson Mayowa is a breakout candidate for 2017, while Sean Martin worries that Mayowa could lose his starting job.

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.

Dallas Cowboys Add DT Stephen Paea, Replace Terrell McClain

Dallas Cowboys Defensive Tackle Stephen Paea #99 (Cleveland Browns shown) (Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

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."

David Irving

David Irving (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)

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.

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys Sign Tyrone Crawford To Long-Term Contract

Dallas Cowboys Defensive Tackle Tyrone Crawford #98 (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

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.

Who Will Be Cowboys Most Improved Defender in 2017? 1

Dallas Cowboys Rookie Defensive Tackle Maliek Collins #96 (Paul Spinelli via AP)

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.



Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

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2 Comments
  • tom

    the extra HOF game will allow Marinelli to see which of these rushmen he will keep. I see another year of rotating DLine. Let’s just make sure we know what the rotation IS and not get caught with 12 men penalties when subbing!!!!

    • John Williams

      Totes. That is such a frustration for me. Shouldn’t be that difficult to know who is supposed to be in the game or not.

      More importantly than any of it is they need to find an elite pass rusher. Someone who will take the attention of a couple of defensive lineman to allow the rest of the guys to rush one-on-one.

Game Notes

Cowboys, Falcons Week 11 Injury Report

Jess Haynie

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Zack Martin

The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons are both 4-5 and playing to keep their seasons alive. It's a mutual must-win game, and both will have to try to win it without some key players. Once again, we look at this week's injury reports.

Let's begin with your Cowboys, whose report is getting longer as the season wears on:

Dallas Cowboys

  • WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
  • DE Taco Charlton (shoulder) - OUT
  • DT David Irving (ankle) - OUT
  • DT Daniel Ross (calf) - OUT
  • LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - OUT
  • DT Antwaun Woods (concussion) - Doubtful
  • G Zack Martin (knee) - Questionable
  • G Connor Williams (knee) - Questionable
  • DT Maliek Collins (knee) - Questionable
  • LB Joe Thomas (foot) - Questionable

The biggest news is the guy who won't miss tomorrow's game; All-Pro guard Zack Martin is expected to play despite his knee injury from last Sunday night. The Cowboys, already dealing with Travis Frederick's absence and now health issues at left guard, could ill afford to go without Martin in such a pivotal game.

Even if he was healthy, rookie Connor Williams might have a hard time getting in the game. Backup Xavier Su'a-Filo looked like an experienced former second-round pick last week, and he may be the better player for now.

The defensive line has been hit hard, particularly in the middle. With Irving and Ross out, Woods doubtful, and Collins uncertain, Dallas called up DT Christian Ringo from the practice squad. They will also be without Taco Charlton, who could play inside some. Veteran Caraun Reid will be seeing a lot of playing time.

Sean Lee's ongoing absence has become almost an afterthought now with the stellar play of Leighton Vander Esch. We've seen in the past when missing Lee meant disaster on defense, but Dallas' first-round rookie has helped mitigate the damage.

Atlanta Falcons

  • LB Deion Jones (foot) - OUT

It's a short list for Atlanta, but the one name on it is a big one. Arguably the team's best defensive player, Deion Jones will miss the game with a foot injury.

The Falcons' injury issues have been more in players suffering season-ending injuries. Both starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, are on injured reserve. Star running back Devonta Freeman is also there, and those losses help explain Atlanta's 30th-ranked rushing offense.

Both starting safeties are also on IR; Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Atlanta has one of the league's worst passing defense this year without them, ranking 30th in yards allowed and 28th in opponent passer rating.

So yes, the Falcons injury report compared to the Cowboys' may raise some eyebrows. But in terms of who has most of their key guys, Dallas is arguably still better off.



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Dallas Cowboys

4 Best Candidates for Cowboys’ Next Offensive Coordinator

Shane Carter

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Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan

The big word around the Dallas Cowboys lately is about Jason Garrett and the future of the head coaching job. Some have speculated that either Quarterback Dak Prescott or Jason Garrett will get axed, and the other will stay.

Owner Jerry Jones was quoted on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas about his young quarterback, putting to bed at least half of the conflict.

"Dak is the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s young and he’s going to get extended."

This shut the door on the idea of Prescott being replaced.

As far as Jason Garrett? Jerry Jones has been less than committed.

"I’m not in the business of backing anybody; the head coach, or offensive coordinator, I just don’t back them publicly." Jerry Jones said.

So it seems that Jason Garrett’s future is up in the air.

But what about offensive coordinator Scott Linehan? What’s held the Cowboys back this year has been the offense, and a lot of it can be contributed to their predictable play calling and inability to adapt to today’s game and its current players.

Whether or not Jason Garrett retains his job, Scott Linehan’s job doesn’t seem near as secure. His scheme doesn’t really mesh with Dak Prescott and how the offense could look. There’s only so many times you can run a three tight end set and not get furious.

Cowboys fans may want Garrett gone but they might have to settle for a new offensive coordinator instead.

The good news is that there are many options out there. Options that not only could work well with Dak Prescott, but could bring the Cowboys offense into the 2010s.

Shane Waldron

Jerry Jones once said how the Cowboys offense was like the LA Rams. If they are able to sign their Co-Offensive Coordinator, then they could be.

When Matt LaFleur left to become the Tennessee Titans OC, the job became a shared job between Waldron and Aaron Kromer. I wonder if Waldron would rather have the job all to himself?

What makes Waldron so appealing is he is also the Rams tight ends coach and passing game coordinator. Those are two areas where the Rams excel and where the Cowboys need help.

Teams are going to start copying the offensive juggernauts of the NFL and the Rams are definitely one of them. The Cowboys should do themselves a favor and get out in front before other teams beat them to it.

Scott Turner

Cam Newton is having one of his best seasons. Not only is he an MVP candidate but he’s set to have career highs in completion percentage and QBR, as well as a career low in interceptions. Cam Newton is a very talented quarterback but some of this has to be attributed to his new Quarterback Coach, Scott Turner.

The son of Norv Turner, Scott has seemingly helped mold Cam into a more accurate passer without compromising who Cam Newton is as an athletic quarterback. That has Dak Prescott written all over it.

He's got NFL lineage and a new, scary Cam Newton to add to his resume. He may not have as impressive a track record as others on here but he looks like he could be a chip off the old block and get the Cowboys where they need to be going.

Lincoln Riley

A popular head coach candidate, Lincoln Riley has shown his creativity and offensive innovation during his short time as Oklahoma’s head coach. It’s uncertain if he’ll get any real offers to be a head coach, but as an OC, he would be a serious grab.

Everyone has seen the work he’s done with Baker Mayfield and now Kyler Murray. How he’s able to incorporate different formations to open up the pass game and have the run game seem unstoppable. Just imagine what he could do with the weapons he would have at his disposal in Dallas.

It's likely that Lincoln Riley is a hot commodity for a head coach position, especially in Cleveland where he could reunite with Baker Mayfield. That shouldn’t stop the Cowboys from trying to lure him to Dallas, though. Lincoln Riley could be the real missing piece that Dallas has been looking for.

Eric Bieniemy

Another product of Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy is the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. The former running backs coach has the experience under Andy Reid on not only how to run an offense but to use your weapons at your disposal to the fullest.

Maybe I’m over-hyping this man but when you see the work he helped put in with Pat Mahomes and how he uses those weapons around him, it makes me imagine what he can do for the Cowboy offense.

The team has no shortage of weapons and could benefit greatly from a guy like this.

If the Chiefs make it past their first playoff game, Bieniemy could become a more attractive name when it comes time for new head coaches. However, if Jerry Jones comes calling and the right offer is met, who’s to say?

If Kris Richard can be lured from Seattle to fix the Cowboys defense, Eric Bieniemy can be lured from Kansas City to fix the Cowboys offense.



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Game Notes

Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta

Sean Martin

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Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta

The Dallas Cowboys play their next three games in 13 days, all critical to their hopes of winning the NFC East despite alternating wins and losses since week one. For the Cowboys to earn consecutive road wins, their first coming on Sunday night at the Eagles, they'll have to come out of Atlanta in much better shape than they did just a year ago.

As expected in the NFL, a lot has changed in this year. The Cowboys 27-7 loss at the Falcons in their first game without Running Back Ezekiel Elliott was the beginning of the end on a season that forced a multitude of coaching changes in Dallas.

The Cowboys stubbornness in allowing Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn to sack Dak Prescott six times by beating Chaz Green and Byron Bell is something they hoped to move past when new positional coaches were brought in at OL, TE, QB, and WR.

It took the team admitting that these moves below Offensive Coordinator Scot Linehan were not all correct two weeks ago for the Cowboys to see any real progress, but with their win last week there's hope that the Cowboys are the improved team expected weeks ago - arrived just in time for Thanksgiving.

Firing Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander was the first move, as the Cowboys named Marc Colombo OL Coach and Hudson Houck his assistant. Colombo told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas this week that he has injured Center Travis Frederick on a headset during games as well.

Colombo, Houck, and Frederick have the Cowboys offensive line confident in their ability to play to their strengths, rewarded with a renewed faith in the zone blocking scheme that was forgotten under Alexander.

If the Cowboys offensive line was their first problem in last year's Falcons loss (it was), it's becoming their biggest strength at the right time in the season.

The Cowboys necessary changes didn't stop here though.

In desperate need of a play maker on the outside, the Cowboys are seeing their investment into Wide Receiver Amari Cooper pay off so far. Cooper is averaging 3.2 yards of separation on his routes this season, ahead of Cole Beasley's 2.6 yards as the next closest pass catcher.

Cooper's presence was a big part of Ezekiel Elliott's 151 yard rushing performance at the Eagles. A player that can win on the outside with ease and dictate coverage has benefited Prescott and the Cowboys game plan on offense enough to send away a first round pick.

It will be up to this "rebuilt" Cowboys offense to match the Falcons on Sunday. Atlanta is averaging 27.1 points per game this season, but a much more dangerous 32.2 at home. After a 1-4 start, the 4-5 Falcons are playing in front of their home fans for the first time in two weeks, losing at the Browns in week ten.

The Cowboys felt they'd be prepared for games like this after their offseason moves, instead needing to show the type of in-season urgency that's been rare for Jason Garrett's team. The same can be said about a Falcons team that's experienced playing with their backs to the wall much sooner than the Cowboys have this season, setting up a big NFC match up in the early slot Sunday.

Dak Prescott will be thankful that Chaz Green nor Byron Bell are protecting him, wanting nothing more than to deliver another win for the Cowboys to take into Thanksgiving against the division-leading Washington Redskins. Not all of the coaches responsible for the lack of adjustment in last year's game are gone. What the Cowboys do have are tangible new ideas from coaches that understand they need more than a win at the defending Super Bowl champions to call this Cowboys season a success.

Tell us what you think about "Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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