In early March, the Dallas Cowboys signed veteran defensive tackle Stephen Paea – seemingly replacing the starting 1T DT from 2016 in a finally healthy Terrell McClain. McClain's 40 tackles and 2.5 sacks with the Cowboys earned him a new contract with the rival Redskins, and also made last year's free agent signing of the Eagles' Cedric Thornton seemingly pointless.
Thornton had his flashes, but the converted 3-4 defensive lineman that is under contract through 2019 saw just 27.5% of the team's defensive snaps on the season over 13 games played.
The production from the interior of Rod Marinelli's defensive front still remained a strength for the Cowboys thanks to a rookie 3T in Maliek Collins, McClain, and the freak-of-nature David Irving. Now, the pressure is on this unit to produce with Thornton potentially having to assume a larger and unearned role – or with a 29-year-old Stephen Paea.
As you'll see in my scouting report on Paea above, there are certainly things for Cowboys Nation to be excited about should he rightfully take Cedric Thornton off the field and play the majority of the snaps for Marinelli as a “space eater” alongside Maliek Collins. This was Stephen's role back in 2011 under Rod's Chicago Bears – coming up with a career high six sacks.
There are plenty of potential downsides to what Stephen Paea will ultimately become for the Dallas Cowboys in 2017 though, as Cedric Thornton could further his adjustment into this new scheme and essentially mitigate the role of a similar player behind him, exactly as McClain did to Thornton this season.
Fellow Staff Writer Kevin Brady looked at the potential for Dallas' defensive line moving forward should Thornton regain his Philadelphia form right here, and it can be exciting when matching a statement like this to the memorable (albeit rare) plays Thornton made in 2016:
On paper, it appears that the Cowboys have more questions than answers when it comes to their 2017 starter at the 1T DT position, despite signing a clear replacement to their previous starter here.
The intensity of training camp will make the sorting out of the Cowboys' depth chart a lot more clear – and fun – as Cedric Thornton should be pushed to cut into Stephen Paea's playing time by all means necessary. If this becomes a good problem for Jason Garrett to deal with, than we'll surely see a refreshed Paea playing on early running downs and being disruptive.
If not, I'll be keeping a very close eye on these two players through the summer. The 1T DT on the Cowboys may not be the piece that puts them over the top for a Super Bowl run this year, but it is a critically important component to a defensive line that needs all of the assured and consistent play making ability it can find.
Neither Paea nor Thornton have made enough plays consistent with where the Cowboys defense wants to be in 2017 to confidently project as a starter right now, but finding roles for either both players or just the right one is going to be something to sort out very soon.