(Editor's Note: As the NFL Draft approaches on May 8-10, DallasCowboys.com's Draft Series will analyze every position, including the Cowboys' needs at each and which players might be targeted with their 11 picks, while also providing some interesting draft nuggets. Part 7 features the defensive line.)
Position Outlook: This has been the Cowboys' biggest question mark since the 2013 season ended, and that doesn't look likely to change during the buildup to 2014 – regardless of who they draft.
This was already a unit in need of an upgrade, and that was before it lost its two most productive pass rushers in free agency. Franchise sack leader DeMarcus Ware was cut at the start of free agency, and he immediately found a new team in Denver. One day later, free agent Jason Hatcher signed a mega-deal with division rival Washington. The duo combined for 17 sacks in 2013 – for their careers, they have 117 and 27, respectively.
Three additions will attempt to offset those losses. The Cowboys signed journeymen Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain at the outset of free agency, but the real news came when they signed Pro Bowler Henry Melton to a team-friendly contract in late March. Melton will use 2013 as a chance to regain his elite status before an ACL injury derailed his 2013 season. If he does, he'll be able to make much bigger bucks if the Cowboys exercise a three-year option on his deal.
In a similar vein, the Cowboys also brought back 2012 Pro Bowler Anthony Spencer, who will attempt to bounce back from microfracture knee surgery. Both players carry plenty of upside, as well as a decent amount of risk.
George Selvie and Nick Hayden return from last season, and rotational players Tyrone Crawford and Ben Bass will be healthy after missing 2013 with injuries. The fact remains the same, though: even if Spencer returns fully healthy for 2014, the entirety of the Cowboys' defensive line has fewer career sacks than Ware.
What They Need:Even with the signings of Melton and Spencer, the defensive line remains one of the Cowboys' biggest needs ahead of this year's draft.
Melton has the potential to be one of the league's top three-technique defensive tackles, but there's no guarantee he rebounds perfectly from his injury. On top of that, there really isn't any proven depth behind him, which is why Pittsburgh All-American Aaron Donald has become one of the most-discussed targets in this year's draft class.
Depth is also an issue on the outside, but so is production. Selvie and Mincey have combined for just 30 career sacks, and it seems unwise to bank on Spencer's health at this point in time.
Available Vets: Before he re-signed in Dallas, Spencer was probably the best veteran remaining on the market – which gives you an idea of what is left after almost two months of free agency.
There are still a few recognizable names available, but they call come with caveats. Long-time Saints pass rusher Will Smith is still on the market, but he is coming off a torn ACL. Fellow veteran Brett Keisel is also available after his contract in Pittsburgh wasn't renewed, but he is about to turn 36 and is also a better fit for a 3-4 defense.
Draft Prospects: This very issue has generated roughly 75 percent of the Cowboys' talking points in the buildup to this year's draft. Two prospects stand above all else as possible first-round selections that could bolster the defensive line – Aaron Donald and Anthony Barr.
Donald is widely coveted for his abilities as a three-technique, pass-rushing defensive tackle – the exact sort of player Rod Marinelli would love to plug into his defense. Barr is more of a linebacker-defensive end hybrid, and he might take more work to blossom into his star, but his upside is tantalizing.
Behind them is a bevy of talented and intriguing players, nearly all of whom come with questions and concerns. There are other tweener types, like Auburn's Dee Ford or West Virginia's Will Clarke, who many worry don't have the size to play as down linemen. Then there are guys like Missouri's Kony Ealy and Scott Crichton, who like suited to the scheme but lack the same raw athleticism. [embedded_ad]
If Donald doesn't wind up in Dallas, other defensive tackles like Will Sutton, Dominique Easley, Timmy Jernigan or Ra'Shede Hageman are all names to keep an eye on.
For a more in-depth look at all the draft prospects, check out the *Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine* 2014 Draft Guide, which profiles more than 80 potential picks with rankings for over 300 players available in the upcoming draft. Digital subscriptions, which include 32 issues throughout the year, are available for just $14.99.