Need To Figure Out:
We don't even know whether the Cowboys will play a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense this season, but as far as projecting the defensive end position, it may not even matter. The only thing we really know is that DeMarcus Lawrence will be expected to produce. We don't know who will be starting opposite him at the right defensive end spot.
The question of who is starting is important, but when the field is so large and wide open, it may prove to be that the most important question is how many of those potential starters are likely contributors. It would be great for the Cowboys if the competition for starter is intense, because it would mean that the team could have a deep rotation of defensive ends to play at that spot as well as give Lawrence rest when needed.
In February, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula essentially said that his defensive line rotation would be as deep as the talent dictates. "What's the drop-off?" Tomsula asked. "That's my point. That's the question I'm always asking myself. The goal is to have as many guys as you can playing and go. But if there's a drop-off, we've got problems."
There are plenty of best-case scenarios at defensive end when you look past Lawrence. Aldon Smith could recapture some of his former greatness. Bradlee Anae could become an immediate contributor as a rookie. Randy Gregory could successfully be reinstated to the NFL and pick back up where he left off. Tyrone Crawford could return from hip surgery and provide reliable starting-caliber production. Dorance Armstrong could take a step forward in his development. Undrafted free agent Ron'Dell Carter might not only make the team but see actual game snaps.
If all those things prove to be true, then the defensive end position will have essentially no noticeable drop-off, and the entire defense will benefit from it. But, realistically, the opposite of all of those things could prove to be true. Smith and Gregory might not successfully be able to shake off the disadvantage of missing full seasons of NFL action. Anae might not be ready to contribute as a rookie. Crawford might not be fully recovered from injury. We might have seen the best we'll see from Armstrong. Carter might not even make the team.
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle for these scenarios. But they're all something to keep your eyes on. How much depth the Cowboys truly have at the defensive end position is currently an unknown, and it will certainly matter over a 16-game season.