The biggest buzz from all of the Cowboys roster positions right now is at defensive tackle. After quickly losing Gerald McCoy to a season-ending injury and releasing him, Dallas is now trying to figure out who will replace him during these early days of 2020 training camp.
The story coming into camp was an encouraging one. After many years of patchwork and band-aids at the DT position, the Cowboys had finally made some real investments with the signings of McCoy and Dontari Poe plus the draft picks spent on Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore. The combination of veteran experience and youthful potential seemed the right mix to produce strong play in the middle of the defensive line.
Losing Maliek Collins in free agency wasn't a small thing. He's been the most consistent DT on the roster since 2016 and was a capable starter. But that loss at least felt fully mitigated by all of this other offseason activity, if not also offering potential for an upgrade.
But then Poe started camp on the PUP list as he continues to work his way back from a torn quad last year (he has since been reactivated as of Tuesday). That same day, McCoy went down with his own quad injury and it was quickly revealed he would miss the 2020 season.
Due to past issues with that same body part, McCoy's three-year contract had a rare clause that gave the Cowboys an option to release him. They executed that option later that day. Gerald could be back in 2021 if there's still mutual interest, but for now he's no longer part of the team.
That now leaves Dallas hoping in carryover players like Trysten Hill, Tyrone Crawford, and Antwaun Woods to step up. That's not exactly inspiring; these are the same guys that the Cowboys distrusted enough to go sign McCoy and Poe in the first place, plus draft Gallimore.
DT Pre-Camp Rankings
- Tyrone Crawford vs Dontari Poe vs Antwaun Woods
- Neville Gallimore vs Trysten Hill
- Justin Hamilton
While I've separated the veterans from the young prospects above, you could argue that all five players are in open competition for playing time. This is especially true with the new defensive coaching staff coming in, who will be finding different ways to utilize guys like Crawford, Hill, and Woods than Rod Marinelli did.
If he's healthy then expect to see plenty of Dontari Poe. He's a former 1st-round pick and two-time Pro Bowler. He is best-suited physically to be the run-stuffing DT or nose tackle in various formations and has done it at a higher level than any of our current talent.
Still, “if healthy” is a dangerous term. That's why it's good Dallas held on to Antwaun Woods, who hasn't been happy with his contract situation as an exclusive rights free agent but finally agreed to terms just before camp. While undersized, Woods has handled those same duties well over the last two years.
Between the signing of Everson Griffen at DE last week and now the McCoy injury, Tyrone Crawford is feeling more and more like a DT every day. He has the experience of playing in the 3-tech role and could wind up starting.
The competition between the young draft picks in Hill and Gallimore is a fun one to watch. After getting tons of criticism as a rookie, Trysten is getting rave reviews from the first week of camp and could be a bigger factor in 2020 than most assumed. Dallas may not need to bring back McCoy next year, or find any other new DT, if these young guys can start producing.
While “heavy rotation” was a tagline for Rod Marinelli, don't expect anything different under Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula. All of these players bring something to be table and will be utilized, and I expect all five to make the official roster now that McCoy is gone. In many ways, 2020 is an audition for who can be long-term answers at defensive tackle.
The one other DT current in camp, Justin Hamilton, doesn't seem like a big factor in this discussion. He was signed last January as an offseason body but then Dallas kept and added all of this additional talent. Already 27 and having failed to catch on with multiple teams, Hamilton would have to make shocking strides to find relevance with the Cowboys.