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.
WR Randall Cobb Named Cowboys “Surprise Standout” for Offseason
NFL teams have wrapped up their offseason activities with the close of OTAs, especially where the players are concerned, and await the start of training camps next month. In reviewing the last few months, ESPN had their local reporters each pick a surprise standout from their team's practices. Todd Archer, who covers the Dallas Cowboys full time, selected veteran receiver Randall Cobb.
Cobb is in his first season with Dallas after signing as a free agent last March. He's spent the last eight years with the Green Bay Packers and was a Pro Bowler in 2014, but has struggled with injuries the last few seasons.
Here were Archer's observations on how Randall is doing so far with the Cowboys:
Normally a player with Cobb's résumé -- 470 catches for 5,524 yards and 41 touchdowns during his career -- would not be considered for a category like this. But injuries limited him to only nine games and 38 catches for Green Bay in 2018, and it was hard to know what the Cowboys were getting in the veteran receiver.
If the offseason work is any indication, they have found a replacement for Cole Beasley. Cobb's versatility can expand the offense for others, such as Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cobb looked quick in and out of his breaks and fast enough to make plays down the field. Will he put up the 1,287 yards he had in 2014? No, but he gives Dak Prescott a security blanket in the slot who can turn a small gain into a big one.
The notion of Cobb replacing Beasley is a big one. While we'd like to think that Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup will provide plenty of firepower for the Cowboys offense, Dak Prescott has enjoyed a reliable threat from the slot position since he arrived.
Randall Cobb, when healthy, can do more than just make clutch catches. He has good run-after-catch skills and perhaps bring more big play potential than Beasley did.
If Cooper and Gallup do emerge as a dangerous starting duo on the outside, Cobb should have even more opportunities to punish defenses than Beasley did.
If nothing else, it's very encouraging to hear that one of the Cowboys' few 2019 free agent moves is already reaping benefits. Cobb still needs to bring it over a full season to really justify the move, but these early reports are cause for excitement.
BREAKING: Cowboys TE Rico Gathers Receives One-Game Suspension
Tight End Rico Gathers already had an uphill climb to return to the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. But that climb just got even steeper; the NFL handed down a one-game suspension to Gathers today for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If he does make the team this year, with Dallas or anyone else, Rico will have to sit out Week One of the season without pay.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers is suspended without pay for the first game of the 2019 regular season for violating the NFL's policy and program on substances of abuse. This is from his arrest in 2018 for marijuana possession.
Gathers' chances of returning in 2019 were already hurt by Jason Witten's reversed retirement. He dropped to fourth on the TE depth chart behind Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, and Dallas only kept three tight ends last year.
The Cowboys also added Codey McElroy as a developmental player during the offseason.
While the suspension is news, the incident that led to it is not. Dallas already knew about the arrest, which occurred in early September of 2018, and have kept Gathers around up until now.
The NFL's substance abuse system is pretty formulaic, so the Cowboys likely anticipated this suspension all along. This may not change anything about how they value Rico Gathers for the 2019 season.
Nevertheless, a player who can't help you in Week One and is a liability for ever longer suspensions down the road is definitely a red flag against Gathers' job security.
Antwaun Woods: Cowboys DT is Just Getting Started
Antwaun Woods went undrafted in 2016 coming out of USC. After two years with the Tennessee Titans, he would only see one game of action. In May of 2018, the Cowboys signed Woods to a two-year contract worth 1.05 million. Probably seen as nothing more than a practice squad guy, Woods would quickly show he was much more than that.
The newly acquired Woods started his climb to stardom in Oxnard during training camp, and not for making plays. One day during practice he got into a friendly game of fisticuffs with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. The team even posted the video on social media, which had fans buzzing and wanting to know who he was.
All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott echoed those thoughts when he saw Woods during camp. "Honestly, when we first got him, we were like, 'Who is this guy?'. He was giving Travis Frederick, one of our best players, hell all camp. Just trying to figure out where this guy came from," Elliott said.
Once the regular season started it was clear the Cowboys had found a hidden gem. Although the sack numbers won't dazzle you, seeing as he only registered 1.5, you could forget about running the ball anywhere near him. Woods has amazing quickness for a 300 pounder which allows him to extend his arms before offensive lineman can get a hand on him.
How significant is that? It becomes that much easier to bull rush and blow running plays up in the backfield.
When you can get your hands on an offensive lineman immediately when the ball is snapped, he's basically under your control. You can move him around like a puppet on a string. Essential for a 1-technique nose tackle. With that being said, there should be no surprise the Cowboys finished fifth against the run in 2018 with Woods manning the middle.
Woods draws a lot of double teams, and he handles them well. Having the ability to take on multiple linemen frees up your other playmakers. As the anchor in the middle, Woods made life a lot easier for not only his fellow defensive linemen but the team's two young star Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Allowing them to roam freely like Lions in the Serengeti makes running backs essentially Zebra's carrying the ball, cooked food. So much so that both tallied over 120 tackles and were the only teammates in the NFL to rank in the top 15 in that category.
There's nothing but upside with Antwaun Woods. He's only had 18 games of experience in three years. He's already a stud, but with limited snaps, it can only mean he'll be even more formidable going forward.
The Cowboys have a loaded defensive lineman group with around 15 bodies, plenty of competition. All signs point to him remaining the starter, but it's not guaranteed. Even with that being said I don't expect a complacency from Woods, especially with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn looking like the only sure starters on the defensive line. Plus this is a contract year for him, so you know he'll be even more motivated as he tries to maximize his dollars. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from this raw talent, setting up for a potential breakout year for him in 2019.
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