With the hiring of Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys will transition from a Rob Ryan-led 3-4, to a Tampa 2 (4-3) defense. They have a full roster, but do they have players to fill the positions in a different defense? In 2012 we saw depth concerns at linebacker made prevalent by injury. In 2013, I expect to see the same depth issues at defensive line, even without injury.
Before taking a look at the defensive line, let’s start with the other positions first and move from there.
At cornerback you could say that Carr and Claiborne are “press corners,” which is not the style of play for the Tampa 2 (4-3 defense). While it is true that they are tremendous press corners, that should not take away from their ability to just flat out play the position. Scandrick will return at the nickel and they will have an audition for the 4th cornerback. Jenkins will likely go somewhere else, while other corners picked up off the street that showed some promise (Sterling Moore and Michael Coe) could stay with the team. I also expect the Cowboys to bring in some rookies via late draft picks or free agency to compete. This may be the most stable position in making the transition to the 4-3.
Safety could be easy, even if it will need work. The Tampa 2 requires a true ballhawking free safety and a strong safety that can hold his own in coverage but can also play the run well. In Rob Ryan’s defense, the two positions were interchangeable and you essentially had two strong safeties. A healthy Barry Church gets the lock at strong safety, and Gerald Sensabaugh will have the leg up at free safety, but he is not a good fit in this scheme. Sensabaugh has always fit the mold of a strong safety and lacks the coverage skills of an ideal Tampa 2 free safety. Matt Johnson was drafted in the 4th round last year and seems to be more in line with the need, a ballhawking safety with good size and better speed than Sensabaugh, and he is also highly thought of as a QB of the defense (which the Cowboys need). There is a lot to be seen from him though, as he was injured his entire rookie season. Danny McCray will hopefully be gone with Eric “Don’t-call-me-Peter” Frampton filling that spot and likely filling it better. Frampton played as well as McCray on special teams and better on defense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a safety drafted also – I just hope it is one with good coverage skills and someone who can lead the defense like Darren Woodson – but I wouldn’t expect any immediate impact.
Moving down to the second level, linebacker may now become a position of strength. A lot depends on if they can resign Anthony Spencer. There are three linebacker positions: the middle “Mike” LB, the weak side “Will” LB, and the strong side “Sam” LB. Two of those positions are already taken with no question. Sean Lee will return as the Mike LB and Bruce Carter will slide to the Will because of his “range-y” speed and ability to get off blocks from the backside. If Spencer is re-signed, I expect him to play the Sam LB as he is so good at the point of attack, taking on blocks and stopping the run. He would be an even better run stopper with blockers not having a direct path to him.
Without Spencer, I expect that Dan Connor will likely play the Sam. He is a very good LB when it comes to playing the run, but Connor lacks the high-end speed to play the Will LB. Due to injuries at the LB position this year, we were able to see a lot of younger players get some quality snaps. Alex Albright showed a lot of promise, making smart plays and showed better than expected speed. He will most likely back up Lee at the Mike although his size is bigger than the typical 4-3 LB. At 6’5” 260 he is taller and heavier than the prototype, however, he has shown that he can be productive regardless. Victor Butler would be a good backup at either the Will or Sam LB but I think he is more likely to backup Carter at the Will LB due to his speed. Kyle Wilber and Caleb McSurdy factor into some backup roles and either would be nice fits at the Sam LB. I don’t expect the Cowboys to draft a LB switching to the 4-3.
Now, the problem child – defensive line. We already saw depth issues up front last year, but now the ‘Boys will have one more line position to fill. The easiest fix to this is that DeMarcus Ware will be lining up at weak side defensive end. He will play the majority of the plays, only coming out for breathers occasionally. He is a bit light for a 4-3 DE, but I believe he is strong enough for that not to matter. I don’t see any of the other linebackers moving down because none of them have the size and pass rushing combination that Ware has. Butler is three inches shorter and ten pounds lighter. It could be argued that Dwight Freeney isn’t that big, but even he is 15 pounds heavier than Ware (25 more than Butler).
At defensive tackle, there are two types of players that fit, one is a large athletic man (which Jay Ratliff/Sean Lissemore fit nicely; both stand about 6’4” 300 pounds), and the other is an even bigger man that plugs holes. For this role Marcus Spears and Rob Calloway are the only current players that fit this spot. Spears is a solid player for this position with Calloway a yet-to-be-seen promising backup.
The typical 4-3 DE is between 6’3”- 6’7” and 265-285 pounds. Ware is 6’4” 255 but could add 5-10 pounds easily. I am aware that people play “out-of-position” based on size all the time (Freeney is too short for 4-3 DE, Ratliff undersized for 3-4 DT, etc.) but I contend that it is an easier transition if you have guys that fit the bill.
At the defensive end opposite of Ware, there is only one player that I see that could play that spot adequately: Tyrone Crawford. He fits the size at 6’4” 285, and showed that he can play late in the season. However, who backs up Ware? Who backs up Crawford? Or even starts at the other defensive end? The name glaringly left off this list is Jason Hatcher. Hatcher is a good height at 6’6”, but at 305 pounds, he is heavy. He played extremely well at defensive end in the 3-4 and may be the best returning lineman on next year’s team. He could play both tackle and end in the 4-3, however, he is not fast enough to consistently play the end in a 4-3 and not powerful enough for a tackle. I would love to be wrong about how he fits in the scheme, but I think he is a hybrid that could play both positions well but neither one exceptionally. He would be a great depth guy to backup two positions, but I don’t see that happening. In all likelihood, Hatcher probably gets the nod at tackle and the Cowboys try to make it work. The lineup will probably look like this:
*Spencer starts if he gets signed; if not, it’s Connor
**If Crawford shows he can play defensive end, then he starts and Hatcher plays tackle; if not, Hatcher gets DE and Spears up at DT
Backups look like this:
In my projections, the biggest hole is who plays defensive end opposite Ware, and who backs up either position. In today’s NFL, a defensive line rotation is not uncommon and is probably preferential to keep players fresh. Speaking of fresh, I have penciled in Ratliff as the starter, but at 33 years old he may be expendable, and that would be one less depth guy available. I expect DE/DT to be a top priority in this year’s draft and perhaps the Cowboys get a player that fills the need at DE and can step in as starter right away. If that happens, it will go a long way to providing depth; as it is, I see a lot of guys playing in positions that they may not be suited for along the line.