The Cowboys have run into a lot of setbacks on the defensive side in recent years. If not for a rash of injuries and suspensions over the past three seasons, we might be talking about their defensive line the same way we speak about their offensive line. Going into 2017 Dallas has three suspended linemen and three others limited by injury issues. The biggest hit they have taken up front is the suspension of Randy Gregory for at least a year. The 2015 second round pick is a highly talented young player that will be a difference maker if he ever gets his head on straight. David Irving was a solid contributor last year with 4.5 sacks from the tackle position. He will miss the first four games this year while pass rush specialist Demontre Moore will sit two. Expected starter Demarcus Lawrence will be limited early after having back surgery for the second consecutive offseason while backup ends Benson Mayowa (knee) and Charles Tapper (back) will also be eased into action during training camp.
Lawrence has been a major disappointment thus far but has shown enough potential to keep both the Cowboys and fantasy owners from completely losing faith. Lawrence opened his rookie of season in 2014 on short term IR. He was on the field for some games down the stretch but was not completely healthy and never really got it going. The slow start rolled over into 2015 when Lawrence had just one sack in the first eight games. Then he caught fire, racking up 22 tackles, 7 assists, 7 sacks and a forced fumble over the final eight contests. At that point his minor offseason back surgery seemed like a non-issue. Unfortunately the four game suspension handed down by the commissioner was, and the back problem had not been completely resolved either. Lawrence played a significant role in six games going 8-3-1 before being shut down. This is the final year of his rookie contract and is a make or break season for Lawrence as a member of the Cowboys. If he is healthy the talented fourth year player has the potential to make a big impact both on the field and in the box scores. The fact he is limited at the early stages of camp is enough to make everyone nervous but the team insists it is precautionary. Lawrence clearly has starter potential for fantasy owners but the risk is far too great for him to be counted on. Pick him up as depth and keep your fingers crossed he is finally healthy.
Owner Jerry Jones is not one to wait around for any player and is always willing to make a big investment for an opportunity to win. With the future of Lawrence being uncertain and no sure end in sight for Gregory's suspension, the Cowboys used their first round pick on Michigan's Taco Charlton. Charlton has as much natural ability and potential as any defensive end in this year's draft not names Myles Garrett. At 6'6" 277 pounds he has the size and physical attributes to be an effective three down player. Having posted 19 career sacks for the Wolverines including 10 as a senior, there is little doubt he can get after the passer. Scouts noted Charlton's freakish athletic ability and his reaction time off the snap. One scout remarked "It looks like he knows the snap count most of the time". Charlton is not without some questions though. The one many are asking is why he was only a one year starter at Michigan. The answer to that may give us even more reason for optimism. Simply put, he was still growing both physically and as a football player. There was a lot of inconsistency to Charlton's game early on. He made three starts as a junior but played in every game either on a rotational basis or as a sub package rush specialist. Charlton needs to add some muscle to maximize his ability as an edge setting run defender and some good coaching will make him an even more accomplished pass rusher. He is young and still a bit raw but has the potential to be a special NFL player. The coaching staff has already plugged their prize rookie into a starting role but we should keep in mind first year ends rarely make a huge impact. With that in mind 30-35 tackles and 6-7 sacks are reasonable expectations for the upcoming season with his dynasty value being significantly greater.
With the Cowboys situation, depth at end could prove vital to the team's success in 2017. A healthy Mayowa can be a solid contributor, especially on third down. He was 15-9-5.5 last season, which is pretty good production for 356 snaps. David Irving shifted inside last season and is a better fit at tackle, but he can play end on early downs if needed. Demontre Moore was a third round pick of the Giants in 2013. He has bounced around a bit posting 9.5 sacks with the Giants and Dolphins over two seasons (2014-2015) before having a cup of coffee with Seattle last year. The player to keep an eye on here is Charles Tapper. The Cowboys 2016 fourth round pick had his rookie season washed out by the back injury but has the potential to become a solid NFL starter if he can stay healthy.
Dallas has no super star at the defensive tackle position but they have a deep group of good players when everyone is available. It is irrelevant who gets the title of starter here because the Cowboys will use several players in the rotation. Last year's third round pick Malik Collins contributed 5 sacks in his first season while Tyrone Crawford and David Irving each added 4.5. Cedric Thornton is not so much a pass rusher but is a quality early down run defender as is newcomer Stephen Paea. Collins, Irving and Crawford all have the potential to crack fantasy lineups if they could get enough opportunity. Collins led the Cowboys interior linemen playing 617 snaps (60%) last year, followed by Crawford at 607 and Irving with 452. None of the team's interior linemen reached 20 solo tackles though. We might get 25 tackles and 5-6 sacks out of someone here in 2017, with Collins the most likely to reach those numbers.
DE Demarcus Lawrence - Risk reward player with low floor and high ceiling
DE Taco Charlton - Possible DL3 or dynasty target with big long term potential
DE Benson Mayowa - Injury sleeper at best
DE Charles Tapper - Deep sleeper worth keeping an eye on
DE Randy Gregory - Suspended indefinitely
DE Demontre Moore - Marginal at best, suspended 2 games
DT David Irving - Suspended 4 games but could have a DT3 value upon reinstatement
DT Tyrone Crawford - Potential depth in leagues starting two interior linemen
DT Cedric Thornton - No value
DT Malik Collins - DT3 with low DT2 upside
DT Stephen Paea - No value
DT Joey Ivie - Rookie project