For the Dallas Cowboys, no position group has been hit harder this offseason than the defensive line. Two of their best players–not just linemen, mind you, but players–are gone, DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos and Jason Hatcher to the hated Redskins.
That’s why drafting a defensive tackle is crucial to the success of this 2014 team. It is easily Dallas’s biggest need.
The defensive line was clearly the team’s free agency focus. Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain and Henry Melton were all brought in to add a veteran presence to the line.
Melton was the biggest signing of the group. In 2011-12, Melton combined to play 29 games and generate 13 sacks. While injuries derailed his 2013 campaign, there’s no doubting Melton’s potential to make an impact.
Why, then, is a 3-technique defensive tackle still being mocked to the Cowboys by so many?
Just take a look at Melton’s contract. This year, he’s making a totally manageable $1.25 million in base salary and a $1 million signing bonus. He could take home as much as $5 million after incentives, but his cap hit won’t be much more than $1.7 million.
Contrast that with 2015, when Melton’s cap hit is expected to be $9.25 million. I don’t believe the Cowboys intend to bring Melton back. I don’t know that they ever did.
But in order to cut ties with Melton, the team needs a viable backup plan, and that’s where the draft comes in.
The best defensive tackles on this year’s board are Aaron Donald from Pitt and Timmy Jernigan out of national champion Florida State. Right now, it doesn’t look like Donald will fall to 16, and the Cowboys may want to trade up for him. Jernigan should still be available and will be a serious option for Dallas on draft day.
The team doesn’t necessarily need to get their man in the first round, however. The line as a whole is not the deepest position this year, but there are several 3-techniques the Cowboys could take a look at.
Will Sutton out of Arizona State is one of them. He’s a little small at 6-1, but has good hands and uses his size to his advantage to get off blocks.
Check out this footage of Sutton in the 2013 Holiday Bowl against Texas Tech:
There’s also a South Carolina lineman the Cowboys could target, and his name’s not Clowney. Kelcy Quarles might be available for the team in round three, and he has great upside. It’s true that playing next to Clowney makes life a lot easier–you’re never going to be double-teamed, that’s for sure. But Quarles showed good hustle at Carolina, pressuring the quarterback into bad throws and closing running lanes. The Cowboys might be able to coach him up and get him to take over for Melton next season.
Obviously, the Cowboys will take a hard look at a first-round 3-technique. Don’t be surprised to see them go there on draft day. But if they pass on May 8th, there will still be good options on the 9th. All these players have the potential to ensure that Dallas only needs Melton for one season.
Resigning Melton wouldn’t be the end of the world, either. If the Cowboys want to do that, having another guy to rotate in or play next to him would be ideal.
But my gut tells me that Dallas doesn’t want to pay up, and they’re using this draft to find a way not to. That’s why defensive tackle is the biggest need in Big D this year.
Have a great Easter Sunday, and remember to check out our Dallas Cowboys page for all your news and analysis.