After months and months of speculation and anticipation, the Dallas Cowboys finally held their first practice of the 2016 season on Saturday.
Of course there was a lot to be excited about, most of which surrounded the offense. Tony Romo, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dez Bryant each give us a ton of reasons to be on the edge of our seats anytime this offense touches the ball.
The defense, however, has faced nothing but criticism since the offseason begun. It is also no secret which position group has been most critiqued on this team, the defensive line.
It is just about impossible to win in this league if you cannot get after the quarterback. It is also just about impossible to win in this league if you cannot stop the run. The defensive line plays a huge part in completing both of these goals, so being weak upfront is the last thing you want.
This much maligned defensive line finally got a chance to line-up and begin to show the public and the coaching staff what they have in store for 2016 yesterday. It was simply a walkthrough with no pads, however, so the actual play of these guys didn’t mean too much. Where they lined up and who started with what group does have some meaning, though.
First team defensive line: DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Ryan Russell
Even though he is facing a four game suspension to start the season, we all knew that DeMarcus Lawrence would be penciled in as the day-one starter at defensive end. He led the Cowboys in sacks a season ago, and will need to improve on his impressive final 8 games of 2015 in order for the Cowboys to take that next step.
Tyrone Crawford will be the Cowboys 3-technique for the entire season, barring injury, so no surprise there either.
The surprises begin on the other side of the defensive line, where the Cowboys must replace the suspended Randy Gregory and fill the vacant 1-technique defensive tackle position. At the opposite defensive end, it is second year player Ryan Russell who worked with the first team. Russell begins this season with a lot of promise and “upside,” and has been given a vote of confidence by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Second-team defensive line: RDE Mike McAdoo, Jack Crawford, Cedric Thornton, LDE David Irving
David Irving worked with the second group at left defensive end, and it will certainly be interesting to see how he and Russell compete during camp. Many, including myself, have high hopes for Irving based off his athletic prowess and physical attributes, but it remains to be seen if that athleticism can translate into pass rush production on the field.
By the looks of things the battle for the starting defensive tackle spot is starting to heat up as well. Terrell McClain worked as the 1-technique with the first team, while free agent addition Cedric Thornton worked with the two’s.
McClain has struggled with injuries during his tenure in Dallas, but when healthy, he makes the interior of the Cowboys defensive line even stronger than anticipated. Both McClain and Thornton are going to play a lot during the season, so the rotation of the two will be key.
Personally, I like Thornton better than McClain as the starter at this point, but there is still a long way to go before those final decisions are made. Still, considering the amount of money which Thornton was given this offseason, it seems strange that he isn’t working with the first group from the get-go.
Mike McAdoo and Jack Crawford filled out the right side of the second team defensive line. Crawford can play both as the 3-technique and as the defensive end, and this versatility will be key for the Cowboys as they deal with suspensions to Lawrence and Gregory.
There are obviously a ton of questions which must be answered by this defensive line. We can’t be sure at this point that a pass rush can be consistently created, and only one of these guys even has 10 sacks in his career. But there are some good names in this group, including guys with a lot of youth, athleticism, and raw skills that the Cowboys are hoping can be developed quickly.
Tyrone Crawford, Jack Crawford, Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, and Maliek Collins should give you a lot of hope about the interior of this defensive line as well.
It’s the beginning of a very long season, let’s settle in and enjoy the ride that 2016 is going to be.