(Editor's Note: This is the eighth of a 12-part series examining and analyzing the main position groups for the Cowboys as they prepare for training camp. Today's piece focuses on the defensive tackles.)
What's the Deal? This may have been the biggest shakeup of any position this offseason. After losing Jason Hatcher, the Cowboys brought in their most significant addition of the offseason in Henry Melton. But it's still to be determined after
coming off ACL surgery if Melton can get back to the six and seven sack player he was in 2011 and 2012. Tyrone Crawford's expected to make a big jump in 2014 also coming off a major injury, and he has the ability to play inside or bump outside. Nick Hayden, a starter last year, will be competing to do the same in 2014, but he'll be pushed by newcomer Terrell McClain. Undrafted rookie Davon Coleman was a priority signing after the draft and hasn't disappointed. Ben Bass will also try to make his mark coming off injury, while seventh-round pick Ken Bishop competes for a spot on the roster.
Still Need to Find Out:
If Melton can get back to being the player Rod Marinelli had in Chicago. He never had the double-digit sack type of season that Hatcher had last year, but he was consistently with seven sacks in 2011 and six in 2012 before the injury in 2013. The deal Melton signed in Dallas lets the Cowboys out if Melton doesn't get back to being that type of player, but they have a lot of confidence that he can get healthy and become one of the better defensive tackles in the league. The Cowboys may need for that to happen if they're to start building a pass rush that struggled in 2013. If Melton can reach that seven-sack total once again, he'll have done his job in Dallas. So far, we haven't seen much of him, and he may need some more time in camp before he's healthy and ready to go.
The first is 11 – as in, the number of sacks Hatcher provided last year. The other is zero – the amount of sacks the four likely contenders for the two starting defensive tackle spots this year had last season. This group is much more about potential than past production. Melton's had some big seasons but went without a sack in three games last year. Hayden started all last season and scored a touchdown, but his contributions didn't include a sack. McClain played in 16 games without a start or a sack. Crawford missed the whole year with his Achilles injury. There's a lot of potential for all of these players, but the majority of their production either happened prior to 2013 or has not yet occurred, and they have some big shoes to fill after Hatcher's spectacular season. All eyes will be on Melton, though, considering he was the splash signing.
Ready to Breakout?Crawford would be a popular answer here, but we're still not sure if he ends up playing more end or tackle. So let's go with a player we know will be playing the tackle position, and that's McClain. We saw with Hatcher how moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and getting more playing time could do wonders. The same could be the case for McClain after moving to Dallas' 4-3 from Houston's 3-4. He has some explosiveness that may have been more difficult to translate into sacks in the Texans' system as a nose tackle than it would be with the Cowboys. It wouldn't be a shock to see him winning a starting job. He's only got one career sack, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him triple that in Dallas this year.
Battle To Watch: [embedded_ad]
As we look ahead to camp in Oxnard, there is no doubt in my mind that Hayden will be in a battle to continue starting on this line. This past offseason has brought options with the additions of Terrell McClain and Ken Bishop, but also the return of Tyrone Crawford after missing the entire season. McClain lined up at the three during OTAs and minicamps for Henry Melton, who will be ready for training camp, but I think the better fit for him is at that spot which currently belongs to Hayden…
Last Time Out:
For a look back at how the defensive tackles on the roster performed last year, click here.