Connect with us

NFL Draft

Looking Ahead – The Defensive Line

Avatar

Published

on

Draft Blog - Looking Ahead - The Defensive Line 13

31, 31, 32, and 29. In a sport that seldom rewards age with consistent production and good health, those were the ages of the Dallas Cowboys’ projected starters DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, Jay Ratliff, and Anthony Spencer at the start of the 2013 NFL season. The Cowboys took a calculated roll of the dice that this well established quartet could provide the splash plays demanded of the defensive line in new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s system and we have all borne witness to the disastrous result.

Ware, who hadn’t missed a game in his career, missed three consecutive contests with a quad injury, and has been unable to muster any impact since his return. Ware’s opposite bookend Anthony Spencer barely got out of the starting blocks and landed on injured reserve. At tackle, Jay Ratliff’s injury situation became so contentious his relationship with the club couldn’t bear the weight and fractured. Only Jason Hatcher has remained healthy enough to stay on the field, and he’s consistently played at an all-pro level while providing clear leadership to the group of new faces that surround him. The catch? Hatcher is an unrestricted free agent in 2014.

In addition to getting zero production from half of the projected starters, the team lost two key reserves in Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass to season ending injuries suffered on the practice field.

At present, seven of the ten defensive linemen on the Cowboys’ 53-man roster were not with the team last season, and an astounding six weren’t on the roster when training camp opened. Line coach Rod Marinelli has been given the lion’s share of credit for wringing every ounce of production out of a group made up of castoffs from other rosters.

The concentration of age and injury have led many fans that closely follow the team building process to believe that the defensive line will be the team’s primary focus at the top of the draft in 2014, and rightfully so. Lets take an early look at how the team might stock the position group to better prepare for 2014.

With ten defensive linemen presently on the active roster, we’ll work off the presumption that the team will carry ten into the 2014 campaign. What names will make the cut? How many rookies will wear the star?

 
Defensive Ends:

[column]DeMarcus Ware
Age to Start 2014: 32
Contract Status: Under Contract Through 2017
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $16,003,750

Anthony Spencer
Age to Start 2014: 30
Contract Status:
Unrestricted Free Agent
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $0

George Selvie
Age to Start 2014: 27
Contract Status: Under Contract Through 2014
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $730,000

Kyle Wilber
Age to Start 2014: 25
Contract Status: Under Contract Through 2015
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $679,805[/column]
Tyrone Crawford
Age to Start 2014: 23
Contract Status: Under Contract Through 2015
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $733,81

Jarius Wynn
Age to Start 2014: 28
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $0

Everette Brown
Age to Start 2014: 27
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $0

Caesar Rayford (Practice Squad)
Age to Start 2014: 28
Contract Status: Under Contract Through 2015
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $495,000

Edgar Jones
Age to Start 2014: 29
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $0[/end_columns]
[clear][/clear]

 
Defensive Tackles:

[column]Jason Hatcher
Age to Start 2014: 32
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $0

Nick Hayden
Age to Start 2014: 28
Contract Status: Under Contract Through 2014
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $730,000[/column]

Ben Bass
Age to Start 2014: 24
Contract Status: Under Contract Through 2014
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $570,000

Drake Nevis
Age to Start 2014: 25
Contract Status: Unrestricted Free Agent
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $0

Corvey Irvin
Age to Start 2014: 29
Contract Status: Under Contract Through 2014
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $730,000[/end_column]

[clear][/clear]The Cowboys will enter the off-season with five defensive ends and just three defensive tackles under contract for 2014. Of the defensive ends, Kyle Wilber is included in that number, though he may have found his future home at Outside Linebacker after proving largely ineffective as an injury replacement for Ware.

 
Defensive End:
The very first off-season decision that must be made at end is on the weak side, where the team faces the real consideration of parting ways with one of the best defensive players to ever wear the uniform in DeMarcus Ware. The future of a long time star is never an easy subject to debate, but there is no room for sentimentality in the present state of this defense. There is zero likelihood that DeMarcus ware plays for the team under his present cap number. It is simply too cumbersome for a team that will have to make major changes to get far enough under the salary cap to address multiple needs.  Ware has been rendered ineffective by a combination of injuries. There are only three options, release, re-structure, or a negotiated pay cut. Of the three, release might actually be the most prudent based on his current production level, but it hinges on the team’s ability to find an adequate replacement. Designating Ware a June 1st cut would cost them just $3.75M in dead money against the 2014 salary cap, and $4.8M against the 2015 cap. The organization would no longer owe his 2014 salary of $12.25M for a net savings of nearly $8.5M in 2014, funds sorely needed to re-load this roster. A re-structure or pay cut are possibilities, but a cut is always tough to reach agreement on and why convert salary to bonus if you don’t expect to get a big return on that investment? I strongly believe the Cowboys and Ware are headed for divorce, leaving a critical starting position that can’t be filled by anyone on the roster.

On the strong side, a healthy return by Tyrone Crawford from his Achilles injury is the team’s ideal scenario. He’s young, economical, and shows good promise. This would allow the surprisingly productive George Selvie to work in pass rushing situations and provide much needed depth at both end positions. Coming off surgery for a degenerative knee condition and 30 years old, I don’t see the team entertaining the possibility of bringing free-agent Anthony Spencer back.

The situation at defensive end is so murky, it has to be a priority for player acquisition both in free agency and the draft. Potentially needing two starters, with Crawford the only in-house candidate, if they make a run at a starter in free agency I expect this to be the position. Below are some options to look at in 2014’s prospective free agent and draft classes:

 
Free Agency:
Michael Johnson - Cincinnati Bengals
After a breakout year in 2012, the former Georgia Tech All-American is playing this season under the franchise tag in Cincinnati. His sack numbers are down, but his performance in all facets of the game continues to grade extremely highly. The 6’7”, 270lb. Johnson is a true 4-3 defensive end and will be 27 years old to start the 2014 season.

Michael Bennett - Seattle Seahawks
Bennett has been an extremely productive member of the Seahawks’ defensive rotation. After recovering from a torn rotator cuff in the off-season he has rebounded to record 7.5 sacks through week 15. The 6’4”, 274lb Bennett is a native Texan who starred at Texas A&M.

 
2014 NFL Draft:
Defensive line is perhaps the most dependent position on scheme for NFL success. Some of the top-ranked collegiate defensive ends simply don’t have the size to succeed as an every down player in a four man front. With that in mind, here are some targets to watch in bowl season and through the post-season all-star games. I’ll exclude South Carolina’s superlative Jadaveon Clowney, who will be well out of the Cowboys’ reach given the projected draft order.

Shawn Oakman *
6’9” 275lbs.
Baylor

Players Oakman’s size aren’t supposed to move the way he does. Explosive, with a basketball background and tremendously powerful with his hands, he’s a two way end that can rush and ravage run games. The Penn State transfer is a draft eligible red-shirt sophomore and has yet to declare his intentions. He’s a first rounder should he enter the draft this year, and possibly a top 10 selection in 2015 if he returns to school. Big 12 coaches are rooting for the former.

Kony Ealy *
6’5” 275lbs.
Missouri

Opposite the more heralded, but undersized Michael Sam, Ealy Recorded 7.5 sacks in 2013. Ealy has prototypical size for the position and could potentially kick inside on passing downs. He’d benefit from more functional strength in the run game and Ealy’s inconsitency may push him into the second round, but his potential as a pass rusher will likely have him off the board within the first 50 picks.

Kareem Martin
6’6” 265lbs.
North Carolina

Martin seemed to have finally bloomed into the potential as a pass rusher long expected of him over the second half of the 2013 season. Finishing the season with first team all-ACC honors, he recorded 78 tackles, including 20 behind the line of scrimmage and 11 sacks. I’d presently project Martin anywhere from a late second round pick all the way through the third.

Aaron Lynch
6’6” 244lbs.
South Florida

The case of Aaron Lynch is a curious one. After an outstanding freshman campaign at Notre Dame, he abruptly left the program citing homesickness and returned to Florida. After sitting a mandatory season during which he lost more than 30 pounds, Lynch has declared for the draft after playing a single campaign at South Florida. He wasn’t the same player at 245lbs and finally began to produce as the season wound to a close. Teams will want to answer questions about his dedication to football, but his frame, athleticism, and what he put on tape at Notre Dame will have teams looking his direction very early if he can convince them the game is important to him. He’ll be one of the true wild cards early due to my anticipation that teams could have very different takes on where his head is at regarding football.

Chris Smith
6’3” 268lbs.
Arkansas

Smith posted back-to-back very productive seasons in the SEC. His biggest concern is that production coming against weaker competition while being effectively marginalized by the conference’s heavyweights. I think its unlikely that Smith makes it out of round two without hearing his name called.

Jackson Jeffcoat
6’5” 250lbs.
Texas

Jeffcoat’s production has been outstanding, though concerns persist about his size translating to the NFL effectively. 2013 Big 12 defensive player of the year and Hendricks award winner, Jeffcoat is highly decorated and I don’t see him transitioning to linebacker. With 80 tackles and 12 sacks to his credit as a senior, I believe Jeffcoat comes off the board in round two in May.

* Denotes underclassmen that have not yet declared for the 2014 draft

 
Defensive Tackle:
The song remains the same for the Cowboys at defensive tackle. Jason Hatcher has been fantastic this season, holding together a unit in tatters and producing what I feel has been an All-Pro campaign. What exactly do you offer a 32 year-old defensive tackle? My answer is that I hope the Cowboys establish a very low walk away number, thank Hatcher for his contribution, and set about finding his replacement in earnest. To invest heavily in age again would be throwing good money after bad. New contracts are about paying for future production, not rewarding past performance and at Hatcher’s age the odds of recouping the investment are astronomically against.

Ben Bass and Nick Hayden certainly factor into the mix, but neither projects as a full time starter on an adequate defense. As position groups go, however, the cupboard at defensive tackle is very nearly bare. Doing the right thing for the team’s future with Hatcher means that defensive tackle will top this club’s off-season priorities in my opinion. Here’s a look at the potential groceries:

 
Free Agency:
Henry Melton - Chicago Bears
Melton lost this, his franchise-tagged year, to injured reserve much the same as Anthony Spencer did here in Dallas. Melton will be 27 in 2014, and the Grapevine, Texas native has proven his ability as a disruptive three-technique tackle that this team covets.

Linval Joseph - New York Giants
After Melton, the selection of potential free agent tackles under 30 years old falls off sharply. Joseph is a player the Cowboys have a lot of familiarity with and could hit the market at just 25 years old. Players like Miami’s Randy Starks sound appealing based on production, but the Cowboys have wisely shied away from older players on the open market.

 
2014 NFL Draft:
Ra’Shede Hageman
6’6” 311lbs.
Minnesota

Hageman may not be the pure three-technique model in this system, as pure speed is not his game, but his combination of power and ability to create disruption will surely have him high on the Cowboys’ board. Hageman also has the versatility to play the one-technique as he’s seen duty in both roles at Minnesota. An impressive athlete, Hageman is a sure first round talent and will be mocked to the Cowboys frequently as draft season picks up steam.

Dominique Easley
6’2” 285lbs.
Florida

Easley suffered a season ending ACL injury in September, but put down plenty on film to ensure NFL interest will be high. He wins with quickness and definitely has the one gap ability to get in the backfield and disrupt offenses that this defense demands. He can improve at locating the football faster and finishing, but provided the knee checks out his athleticism is unmatched in this class. Easley projects from the late first throughout the second round.

Will Sutton
6’1” 305lbs.
Arizona State

Sutton was the PAC-12 defensive player of the year, and has received an invitation to participate in the senior bowl. Extremely disruptive, and adept at using his hands and leverage to get off blocks and finish plays, Sutton may be more polished if less athletic than Easley. He didn’t match the production of his junior season when he recorded 13 sacks, but figures to make an early impact for the team selecting him on the draft’s second day.

Aaron Donald
6’0” 285lbs.
Pittsburgh

I have described Donald as the most “Kiffin” three-technique in this year’s class. Extraordinarily productive with 26.5 tackles for a loss this season and 10 sacks, he augments his physical ability by dedicating himself to the study of his opponents. His film rat nature will certainly impress defensive line coaches during the interview process. His size limits his versatility, but the Cowboys are in desperate need of his skill set. He figures to be selected in the second or third round and could immediately help the Dallas front seven.

Timmy Jernigan
6’2”, 298lbs.
Florida State

A first team All-ACC selection, Jernigan has been the most productive interior player on a talent laden Seminole defense. Another player that makes his way with quickness and leverage, Jernigan shares the versatility to play both spots in the Cowboys’ interior line. With at least a double dip at defensive tackle expected by the team in this draft, Jernigan is a prospect that could be available into the third round.

In a league that is continually officiated to favor the passing game, getting to the quarterback is the only equalizer. The failings of the defensive line are the catalyst for the monumentally poor defensive performance the Cowboys are presently enduring. The lack of a reliable rush exposes everyone in coverage, and as exhibited by the state of the roster, the Cowboys are in desperate need of an infusion of youth and production up front. I expect no fewer than four defensive linemen to join the team, and with talented veterans potentially departing, those players need to be prioritized as major contributors. They aren’t just building depth here. The Cowboys must re-make the defensive line as thoroughly as possible in a single off-season, but the reward could be the incremental difference that turns close games into wins. They gambled and lost on age this season. 2014 depends on their ability to stack the deck in the team’s favor, and it starts with the defensive line.



Advertisement
Comments

NFL Draft

Potential RB Prospects Dallas Cowboys Could Target in Each Round

Brian Martin

Published

on

Potential RB Prospects Dallas Cowboys Could Target in Each Round

The Dallas Cowboys have been pretty forthcoming about their desire to add another starting caliber running back to pair with Ezekiel Elliott at some point in the 2019 NFL Draft. That would suggest they are prepared to take one as early at 58th overall in the second-round, or at some point in the rounds in which they hold a draft pick beyond that.

Depending on what the Dallas Cowboys mean by "starting caliber", this year's RB draft class offers some pretty intriguing candidates. It's almost impossible to know at this point which RBs might have caught their eye, so I thought it would be a good idea to share with you some of these potential candidates they could target in each round. With maybe the exception of Josh Jacobs, every other running back could be in play for the Cowboys.

Let's take a look…

Second Round

Damien Harris

Alabama, RB, Damien Harris

Damien Harris, Alabama

Damien Harris was a three-year starter during his time in Alabama and led the team in rushing in each of those three seasons. He is one of the more complete running back prospects in the 2019 draft class and the most pro-ready. He has excellent vision and instincts, allowing him to evade would be tacklers despite his lack of explosion. He actually reminds me of a slightly less explosive version of Ezekiel Elliott, and if paired with Zeke would give the Dallas Cowboys the best RB duo in the NFL.

David Montgomery, Iowa State

David Montgomery was a three-year starter and an every down back in a heavy zone-read offense at Iowa. He is an ultra-competitive back who broke a lot of tackles during his time in college. He is elusive in short areas with quick, active feet and is quicker rather than fast. He is a good receiver out of the backfield and solid as a pass protector. Overall, he is a starting quality RB capable of handling a heavy workload in the NFL. He would make a formidable 1-2 punch if paired with Zeke.

Third Round

Darrell Henderson

Memphis, RB, Darrell Henderson

Darrell Henderson, Memphis

Darrell Henderson was a three-year starter at Memphis and was the lead running back in their zone heavy offensive scheme. He is built (5'8", 208) more like a complementary back in the NFL and is at his best when he can slash and weave through gaps. He's not a grinder and doesn't have the kind of long speed to be a home run threat, but his agility and instincts should make him an intriguing starter in the NFL. He would be a really good complement RB to Zeke with the Dallas Cowboys.

Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M

Trayveon Williams was a two-year starter at Texas A&M and thrived in the Aggies new coaching staff's zone blocking scheme in 2018. Much like Darrell Henderson, Williams is a bit undersize and projects best as a complementary back in the NFL. He is quicker rather than fast, and shows good vision and competitiveness in both the running and receiving game. Despite his size, he is also solid in pass protection, which should help him get on the field early as a rookie.

Fourth Round

Justice Hill

Oklahoma State, RB, Justice Hill (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt, File)

Justice Hill, Oklahoma State

Justice Hill was a three-year starter at Oklahoma State and led the team in rushing the last three seasons. He is another undersized running back who projects best as a complementary piece in the NFL. He is a shifty runner with good lateral agility and has shown the ability to be a threat in the passing game as well. His slight frame and small stature is a cause for durability concerns and could limit him as a pass protector as well.

Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma

Rodney Anderson was pretty much a one-year wonder after his breakout season in 2017 at Oklahoma. He has had a run of bad luck throughout his collegiate career due to some unfortunate injuries, but has the size and skill set to become an every down back in the NFL if he can stay healthy. He reminds me a lot of DeMarco Murray with his upright running style and talent as a runner and receiver, but he's not nearly as polished at this point in his career.

Fifth Round

Alexander Mattison

Boise State, RB, Alexander Mattison (AP Photo/Steve Conner)

Alexander Mattison, Boise State

Alexander Mattison was a two-year starter at Boise State and became the first player in school history to earn the Mountain West rushing title in 2018. He is a crafty runner who runs with good patience and vision, which allows his blocks to develop. He is a big, physical back with only average burst, but his tenacious running style will wear down opposing defenses throughout the game. He is also a factor in the passing game, showing soft natural hands. He would be a solid RB2 and spot starter behind Zeke.

Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska

Devine Ozigbo was a one-year starter at Nebraska and played in a heavy zone read, option offense. He is a hard charging runner who plays with a good burst, but only average long-speed. He is mostly a straight-line athlete, but is surprisingly elusive for a back his size. He has every down versatility due to his skills as a receiver and in pass protection. Like Alexander Mattison, he would be a solid RB2 and potential spot starter behind Zeke.

Seven Round

Elijah Holyfield

Georgia, RB, Elijah Holyfield (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Elijah Holyfield, Georgia

Elijah Holyfield was a one-year starter at Georgia, but split the workload with D'Andre Swift in 2018. He looks the part of an NFL RB and has pretty impressive film that should get him drafted, but his poor testing numbers at the NFL Combine and his Pro Day will take him off of a lot of teams boards altogether. He is a tough as nails runner, but needs to improve his decision-making and tempo to stick around at the next level. If he can develop his game further, he has workhorse potential.

Bruce Anderson, North Dakota State

Bruce Anderson had a really good four-year career at North Dakota State and was a triple threat as a runner, receiver, and special teams player for the Bisons the past four seasons. He runs with good contact balance and is elusive in the open field, but he doesn't have a real good feel for setting up blocks or choosing the optimal running lane. That could improve with better coaching in the NFL, but right now he's a work in progress. His ability as a runner, receiver, and kick returner is intriguing though and should get him drafted.



Continue Reading

NFL Draft

Should Cowboys Avoid DL Jaylon Ferguson At 58?

Kevin Brady

Published

on

Should Cowboys Avoid DL Jaylon Ferguson At 58?

First team All Conference three times. Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year in 2018. NCAA all time leader in sacks. 67.5 tackles for loss over four collegiate seasons.

This guy is a first round pick, right?

Not so fast.

Both in terms of the expression, and when speaking about the player and his ability.

These honors and stats are all held by Louisiana Tech's defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, who played himself into top 50-pick consideration during his college career. Everyone is looking for pass rushers that can get to the quarterback, and Ferguson's college production is second to none.

So why is he not talked about as a top tier edge rusher? For starters, people have questions about his level of competition in college. Playing mostly against offensive tackles who will work 9-5 jobs next year, it's sometimes difficult to evaluate just how good small school pass rushers are.

This is small concern, however, as Ferguson played well against bigger schools in college as well. The real problem scouts, and I, have with Jaylon Ferguson and the possibility of the Cowboys selecting him 58th overall, are his athletic traits.

Ferguson ran an 8.08 second three-cone at his Pro Day. According to Pro Football Reference's combine indexer, only two other defensive ends or edge rushers have ran an 8 second or greater three cone at the combine since 2000. Neither was even drafted.

8.08 seconds is downright horrible, and Ferguson's lack of bend and explosion is shown on his tape as well. Ferguson is a grinder. He's a very powerful rusher who uses his length and strength to his advantage to beat blockers and get to the quarterback. He's not going to show off an incredibly impressive get-off or really turn the corner.

But will this work consistently enough in the NFL to take Jaylon Ferguson with your first pick of the entire draft?

Personally, I wouldn't consider Jaylon Ferguson at 58. I'd start thinking about taking him in the third round, where the expectations for his future as a rusher will be tempered a bit more.

Jaylon Ferguson is too good a football player to flame out of the league or go undrafted, but his traits tell me his ceiling is nowhere near as high as the Cowboys should be looking for with their first draft pick.



Continue Reading

NFL Draft

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Draft Needs: Defensive End

Jess Haynie

Published

on

Randy Gregory, Eagles
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

We've been discussing the Dallas Cowboys' 2019 draft needs throughout the last week, working our way up to the most critical positions. Today we're going to look at defensive end, which could've been a major need if not for some of the Cowboys' recent free agent moves.

The biggest move was, of course, getting DeMarcus Lawrence signed to a long-term deal. Dallas avoided a holdout situation with its key defensive lineman, and hopefully soon enough that his shoulder surgery will be fully healed by Week One.

Before getting Lawrence's contract done, the Cowboys sent a 2020 sixth-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for veteran Robert Quinn. They've also signed Kerry Hyder, a hopeful reclamation project from the Detroit Lions.

These moves were partly necessary as insurance against a stalemate between Lawrence and the team over his contract. But more directly, they were needed after Randy Gregory wound up back in suspended status for another backwards step in the NFL's substance abuse program.

The team is hopeful that Gregory will return at some point in 2019, but they're too close to Super Bowl contention to count on it. And with 2017 first-rounder Taco Charlton having yet to emerge as a reliable player, Dallas knew it had to add some different options at defensive end. But with Gregory and Charlton still in the mix, the Cowboys are now about as loaded at DE as they've ever been.

In fact, we haven't even mentioned a few other options yet.

Dorance Armstrong

Dallas Cowboys DE Dorance Armstrong

Last year, Dallas spent a fourth-round pick on pass rusher Dorance Armstrong from Kansas. He didn't get much playing time last year but flashed potential, and he may be in line for more snaps on passing down this year.

There's also versatile veteran Tyrone Crawford, who can help one the edges if needed. The Robert Quinn addition means we'll probably see Crawford more at defensive tackle this year, but he's also a factor in the Cowboys' overall security at DE.

As we can see, Dallas clearly has a stocked cupboard right now at defensive end. That allows them to not worry about the position in this week's 2019 NFL Draft, but it won't stop them from taking one either.

After all, Quinn and Hyder are only here on one-year contract. Crawford is likely going to be released next year to clear cap space. And again, we don't know how much we can rely on Gregory or Charlton now or in the future.

The Cowboys would be justified in drafting a DE if a good value pick falls to them somewhere in the middle rounds, particularly if they see that player as having more potential than Armstrong or Hyder.

Thankfully, though, Dallas' offseason activity so far has given them draft-day freedom. Their hand won't be forced at any position, and especially at defensive end thanks to their free agent moves. They can afford to wait for exceptional value this year, or until 2020 if needed.

Draft Likelihood: 20%
Projected Round: 5th-7th

~ ~ ~

Other Draft Needs Articles



Continue Reading



Enjoy 40% commissions on officially licensed products as a FanPrint affiliate. You can even make your own, fully licensed Cowboys and player designs! Get started here

Trending