Cowboys position breakdown: D-line

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
10:00
AM ET
Cowboys reporters Calvin Watkins and Todd Archer breakdown the Cowboys, position by position, analyzing what the players did in 2013, what they can do in the future and what the team can do to improve the position in 2014.

Under contract: DeMarcus Ware, George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Corvey Irvin, Martez Wilson, Everette Brown, Frank Kearse, Ben Bass, Tyrone Crawford, Edgar Jones, Caesar Rayford

A look back: Jason Hatcher had the best season of his career with 11 sacks and was added to the Pro Bowl, but the defensive line play in 2013 was shoddy and played a big part in why the Cowboys finished last in the NFL in defense.

Spencer
Monte Kiffin’s defense is predicated on the front four getting pressure, and they did not affect the quarterback enough. From the first day of training camp on, the group was beset by injury. Tyrone Crawford tore his Achilles on the first day. Jay Ratliff never played a down and was cut in October. Anthony Spencer played in one game before needing microfracture surgery on his knee. The Cowboys used 20 different defensive linemen during the season. They hit on George Selvie, who started every game and had seven sacks, and received some moments from Nick Hayden as well, but the group just wasn’t good enough.

DeMarcus Ware missed three games with a quadriceps strain and had a career-low six sacks. He had four sacks in the first three games. Whether it was injury or age, Ware was not the same player in 2013 as he was even in 2012, when he had 11.5 sacks but was limited by shoulder and elbow injuries.

A look ahead: The biggest decision the Cowboys have to make is on Ware. He is to count $16.003 million against the salary cap with a $12.25 million base salary. Do the Cowboys ask him to take a pay cut, or do they restructure his deal in order to create room?

It is a delicate decision that owner and general manager Jerry Jones has been loathed to make in the past. There is no way Ware can count that much against the cap.

It seems almost a given that Hatcher will leave as a free agent. The team does not have the cap space to keep him, and it is difficult to commit big money to a soon-to-be 32-year-old defensive end. The chances of Spencer returning as a free agent are better just because his price will be kept low.

Crawford could be the key to the group, but the Cowboys should not bank on him being an every-down player coming off the injury. He played well as a rookie in 2012, but did not have a sack. His plus, however, is versatility. He could play all along the line. The question for Selvie is whether 2013 was an anomaly or a sign that he finally figured it out.

A look out: Last season's free-agent market was light for defensive linemen, so that could help the Cowboys in possibly keeping Hatcher, but he will take the best offer with this being his last chance to cash in.

Finding free agent help will be difficult, so the best chance to improve is in the draft. They made a mistake in not choosing a defensive lineman last year, and they can’t do that again this year. They need to find a pass-rusher, a run defender and a multi-faceted player. Getting one or two in the early rounds seems imperative.

Position breakdown:

Quarterbacks
Running backs
Tight ends
Wide receivers

Todd Archer

ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter

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