Spagnola: Who's At Right End Will Be Clue To Solving D-Line Puzzle

FIRSCO, Texas– Here is a story that is not going away anytime soon.

         Not next week, during the final week of OTA workouts.

         Not the following week during the three-day, mandatory minicamp.

         Not even by the start of training camp, the first portion out here at The Star for a three-day period before the team loads up for the July 22 departure to Oxnard, Calif.

         And this will be an alternative version of Who's On First?, Cowboys style:

         Who's Where And What On The Defensive Line?

         And solving this current puzzling dilemma might be more complicated than untangling a Rubik's Cube.

         No joke.

         By my count, the Cowboys currently have 17 defensive linemen on their 90-man roster. They have 11 guys listed – for now – as defensive ends. There are five players listed as defensive tackles. And there is one merely listed as DL, that being Tyrone Crawford, whose position might be multipurpose and likely decided by not where he plays best but more so by where he is needed most.

         Thus begins this somewhat tired-head situation the Cowboys must unravel by Sept. 10, and who knows, nothing might be set in concrete until, well, three or four games into the season. This is a highly fluid situation.

And the problem comes tangled with more ifs and buts than ingredients in a loaded potato, many temporary potholes complicating the situation.

Take the guys being withheld from these offseason workouts because of either injury or recovering from offseason surgery. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the team's 2015 sack leader with eight, is still rehabbing from a second offseason surgery over the past two years on the same herniated disk in his lower back. He should be ready for the start of training camp, but likely eased into team drills.

Defensive end Benson Mayowa, the team's 2016 sack leader with six, is rehabbing a knee situation, and likely won't be asked to do much more until the start of training camp. Newly signed defensive tackle Stephen Paea also hasn't been cleared to practice because of a little knee deal. None of this helps.

Then there is David Irving. He's played defensive end, defensive tackle and nose tackle on the three-man front. And while he's practicing with the team, mostly at left defensive end, having tested positive for a performance enhancing drug and appealing what would seem an impending suspension just adds another cloudy layer of unknown to the entire situation. Will he be suspended four games as a first offender, reduced two games or might the league hand him some leniency, though usually not for simply pleading ignorance?

See what I'm talkin' about?

So here is what defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli sees as the first clue to solving the situation:

"Who is the right defensive end?" he says.

The candidates are many, and don't just assume first-round draft choice Taco Charlton is a walk-in starter. That is where Mayowa is best suited to play, and remember, after a lethargic start to the 2016 season, and after being left off the game-day 46-man roster for three consecutive games, he returned to record four of his six sacks over the final five games – a near 13-sack pace factored over 16 games. But again, his chance to compete won't occur until training camp.

Then there is last year's first fourth-round draft choice – yes, before Dak Prescott – one Charles Tapper, who missed the entire season recovering from congenital pars defect in his back. He's out there now, seemingly healthy, and he's versatile. He can play the right side and he can play the left side. So depends.

Then Demontre Moore, the one-time third-round draft choice of the New York Giants who basically is on his last chance to revive a floundering NFL career, the Cowboys his fifth team in five years. Moore played just four games last year in Seattle before landing on season-ending injured reserve in late December. The former A&M Aggie from nearby DeSoto worked this past week of OTAs with the first-team defense at the right end spot.

And then there is Charlton, working alternately with the first, second and thirds on the right side, and likely will be given every opportunity to win the starting job. But again, that is nowhere close to a given or happening.

Now the left side. Again, much of the left side might be decided by what happens on the right side, since you want your two best defensive ends on the field at the same time. And remember, this is not all about rushing the quarterback. You have to be able to stand up against the run, especially on the left side.

You'd think that is the spot for Lawrence. That is where he started 13 games in 2015. But what happens if he plays so well that Marinelli decides to move him to the right side?

Now, Tapper has left-side capability, though he has trimmed down into the 260s. So does Irving if the Cowboys decide he's a better end than a tackle. And left end is where Irving did most of his damage last year as a rotation guy. But again, what happens there depends on that looming suspension, though for now he's been working with the first-team at left defensive end.

Also, if Charlton is beaten out on the right side, might he be a better left-side defensive end than the others, and at 6-6, 271, he certainly is big enough to stand up against the run on the strong side. And speaking of big enough, so is first-year player Richard Ash, 6-3, 325, who played in only two games last year after spending time on the practice squad. But out of necessity, he has been working now at defensive tackle.

And … and … here comes the wild card: Crawford. Though he might be a better inside guy, the Cowboys were getting gashed in the running game last year, so Crawford was moved to strong-side end after starting the first two games at defensive tackle. He's in the same boat again this year, being worked during these OTAs so far at left end with the first team and at times at defensive tackle.

"Inside, outside," Marinelli says of Crawford. "We need roster flexibility."

Head spinning yet?

About the only given so far on the defensive front is Maliek Collins. Last year's third-round pick was the best, most consistent defensive lineman, starting the final 14 games after missing the entire offseason with a broken fifth metatarsal that tempered his participation in training camp. He will start at one of the defensive tackle spots, most likely at the three-technique, but with the ability to play the one if necessary.

The other defensive tackle candidates, along with Crawford, would be Paea and Cedric Thornton, last year's free-agent signee who struggled adapting to the Cowboys one-technique scheme, unable to crack the starting lineup and playing in 13 games behind starter Terrell McClain, who moved on this offseason in free-agency. But with Paea rehabbing, it's been Thornton working with the first-team defense at the one-tech, and evidently he's much more comfortable at that spot this time around. We'll see when the pads come on.

The Cowboys also used two seventh-round picks on defensive tackles, Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell, but interestingly enough, and maybe because of sheer numbers, free-agent rookie Lewis Neal, a defensive end at LSU, has been working as a three-technique in the OTAs.

And don't forget the versatility and possibility of Irving. Even though he's 6-7, he was a force playing inside at tackle, especially at the nose on the three-man line formation. That is where his pressure on Aaron Rodgers on the game-deciding playoff play should have turned into a 10-yard holding penalty on the Packers, the no-call saving them from overtime and setting up the game-winning field goal.

Is Irving inside or is he out? Or is he suspended, and if so, how long?

Oh, and here is another consideration: The Cowboys, because of size and versatility, very well could line up their four best pass rushers across the front, no matter if they are ends or defensive tackles, when they go with a 4-2-5 alignment on the nickel. Because certainly not only Collins can rush inside – he finished with five sacks as a rookie – but so can Irving, Crawford, Charlton and who knows, maybe Tapper and Lawrence, too.

Bottom line on all this: Competition for not only starting jobs, not only for playing time, but for what usually is the eight defensive line roster spots, will be at an all-time high during training camp and those five preseason games. Think about it. If the Cowboys keep four defensive tackles, then all those top defensive end candidates can't make the team. Just do the numbers: Charlton, Lawrence, Mayowa, Tapper, Moore, Irving and Crawford. While some might think Crawford's versatility is a curse, this year it might become a blessing. Same with Irving.[embeddedad0]

And in the end, might the Cowboys be forced to keep nine? Might they have the luxury to trade someone instead of outright cutting him? Just might the Cowboys have raised the talent level from the bottom up in that eight-man pool?

See what I mean about this intriguing story? Not going away.

And you know what, even after the Cowboys come to grips with who stays and who goes, who starts and who rotates in, then the story becomes either, man, the Cowboys sure solved their defensive line problems, or darn it, here they go again, struggling up front putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

 So, when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys defensive front, this might be the only thing we know for sure:

Stay tuned.

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