Last year gave the Dallas Cowboys some conflicting evidence at the defensive tackle position. Strong play in the regular season didn’t translate to the playoffs, and it’s left the team with a quandary over how to handle the interior of the defensive line during this 2019 offseason.
The Cowboys entered the 2018 playoffs as one of the top run defenses in the NFL. They ranked fifth in the league in both rushing yards allowed (94.6 per-game) and yards-per-attempt (3.8).
The run defense even showed up in the playoff win over the Seahawks, with Dallas allowing just 73 rushing yards on 24 carries. Seattle was the NFL’s top rushing team in the regular season.
But then came the ill-fated trip to Los Angeles, where the Rams decimated the Cowboys’ defense with 273 rushing yards.
While they say first impressions are the most important, sometimes your last one is just as critical. The sting of that loss, especially how hapless the team was against the run, will have an impact on everything that Dallas does this offseason.
What could it mean for the defensive tackles?
There was some thought that veteran Tyrone Crawford could be a salary cap casualty this year. Dallas can save $5.9 million by releasing him now or $7 million by making him a post-June 1st cut. That’s money which could be used to help re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, add Earl Thomas, extend Dak Prescott, or many other moves.
But then about a week ago, reports came out that the Cowboys do not plan to re-sign David Irving. If that wasn’t enough to help Crawford’s job security, it was announced on Tuesday that Randy Gregory had been suspended indefinitely by the league for further substance abuse violations.
This almost assures that Tyrone will stick around in 2019, though he may be playing more on the outside than the interior. He will likely be a starting DE and then move inside on some passing downs.
Barring any offseason acquisitions, Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods will return as the primary tackles. They come at a combined bargain of just around $2.8 million, with Collins making up most of that one
This duo was emerging nicely throughout last season, arguably playing their best ball by December. You could even give them a partial pass for the Rams game as Collins was battling illness and Woods played with a torn labrum after the 2nd quarter.
Both Maliek and Antwaun will be on expiring contracts, although Woods will only be a restricted free agent in 2020. Even if the Cowboys feel good about this pair as their 2019 starters, they may still want to prepare for the future with Collins soon headed into free agency.
The team faces a tough decision with Maliek Collins, both this year and next season. He’s been solid for a third-round pick but inconsistent in his play, seemingly due more to always nursing some kind of injury than any lack of talent.
Maliek takes a lot of snaps, leading all defensive linemen in 2016-2017 and near the top last year in the games he played. He’s produced an adequate 10.5 sacks in his career, but half of that came in his rookie season playing next to Terrell McClain.
If the Cowboys want to find an upgrade at defensive tackle, they may very well be giving away Collins’ spot.
In that scenario, Dallas could look to find a trade partner. Maliek turns just 24 in April and would cost his next team just $850k in base salary for 2019. The Cowboys would save about $2 million off his scheduled cap hit.
The money isn’t prohibitive; Dallas could keep Collins to compete with Woods for a starting role or even to just be a versatile backup. They have total financial flexibility.
Even if the team does look to add an upgrade it still makes sense to hang on to Maliek. The only other DT of consequence on the roster right now is Daniel Ross, who Dallas will almost surely re-sign as an exclusive rights free agent. Having Collins, Ross, and Woods with some free agent or rookie addition would round out the depth chart fairly well.
We mention potential upgrades in free agency because there could be several available. Many expect the Bucs to make six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy a salary cap casualty, even though he’s posted six sacks or more every season since 2013. While he just turned 31 in February, McCoy could bring a boost do the Cowboys’ defensive front.
Dallas probably won’t be looking to pay market price on a guy like Grady Jarrett, but they could also explore second-tier options like Darius Philon (Chargers) or Muhammad Wilkerson (Packers). They have the money, even if they retain Crawford and Collins.
The draft is another option. There could be a few solid DT prospects available when Dallas picks at #58, such as Jeffery Simmons from Mississippi St. or Miami’s Gerald Willis III.
If the Cowboys sign Earl Thomas at safety and aren’t looking to spend a high pick on TE after Jason Witten’s return, then defensive tackle could very well be at or neat the top of their draft needs this April.
This could go any number of ways, and one of those includes just standing pat. Dallas might decide that Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods were good enough to stick with for next year, seeing the Rams game as an anomaly and focusing on their play throughout the season.
Thankfully, to whatever extent they assess their need at defensive tackle, the Dallas Cowboys have plenty of options to address it. It’s not a flashy position, but it’s a very important one for them to consider this offseason.