Top 10 Stories to Watch at Dallas Cowboys Training Camp: No. 6 The Defensive Line
By Matthew Postins
The Defensive Line
Some position groups will face plenty of scrutiny during Dallas Cowboys training camp. Some position battles will get plenty of publicity. But no position group will garner as much attention as the defensive line, the position group that used 20 different players in 2013. The Cowboys have spent the offseason doing as much as possible to get better up front. But here are the five things that have to go right for this group to get better in 2014.
Rod Marinelli. The Cover 2 did not produce the way that owner and general manager Jerry Jones had hoped it would under last year’s coordinator, Monte Kiffin. So what makes anyone think that installing one of his disciples in the role, Rod Marinelli, will help? Well Marinelli’s success in the NFL as a coordinator is more recent than Kiffin’s. Marinelli was Lovie Smith’s defensive coordinator in Chicago from 2010-12 and his defenses produced as a Top 5 unit in takeaways all three years and as a Top 5 unit in points allowed twice. His defenses have a knack for being more aggressive within the scheme and his use of liberal rotations up front helps keep players fresh. He’s also shown a willingness to blitz using linebackers and safeties a bit more often than Kiffin. And he’ll be a different voice in the room. Jones is banking that the tremendous work that Marinelli did with the Cowboys’ decimated line last year translates to the entire unit this year. Given that Marinelli’s contract expires after the season, it will determine whether he stays employed or not.
The under tackle. I’ve written this plenty of times. The under tackle position (or three technique) is the most important position in the Cover 2. The player at this position must stop the run and rush the passer. It takes a special player, and Jason Hatcher, unexpectedly, was a special player last season. But the Cowboys let him walk, and for good reason. Hatcher had a career year in a contract year and was in his 30s. He’s already showing signs of wear in Washington. Enter Henry Melton, who sat out all of the offseason trying to recover from a torn ACL. Melton played the under tackle in Marinelli’s Cover 2 in Chicago and had success. Make no mistake — Melton must play big in 2014 for the Cowboys to be a competent defense. His progress in training camp, less than a year after ACL surgery, bears watching.
Hitting on an unexpected vet. Last year it was George Selvie who came out of nowhere to provide the Cowboys with some tremendous play in the wake of injuries. This year the Cowboys have a few candidates to succeed Selvie. Amobi Okoye, if he’s healthy, could be a real find inside. He can play either tackle position and is still young by NFL terms. Terrell McClain could be a solid, space-eating one-technique that could challenge Nick Hayden as a starter. Jeremy Mincey once had 8 sacks in a season, but hasn’t produced like that since. The Cowboys need at least one of these guys to play out of their minds in 2014.
Finding a pass rush. The Cowboys had 34 sacks last year. Half of those sacks left in the form of Hatcher (11) and DeMarcus Ware (6). This is where Marinelli’s rotation philosophy will hit a make-or-break moment. Can a rotation be good enough to make up for the loss of Ware and Hatcher? We’ll find out. It will be a mix of vets like Selvie and Mincey, and younger players like Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford, at least on the edge. Pressure will be needed inside as well. For this unit to succeed the sum really has to be better than the parts.
Health. That’s a given, but it bears mentioning. Injuries have decimated this unit each of the past two years. The Cowboys are due a relatively injury-free season up front. For this strength-in-numbers mantra to work, the Cowboys need, well, numbers, and the healthier the better.