How can a team be expected to come up with answers when the questions change almost daily?
In the wake of the heartbreaking news about the end of DeVonte Holloman's football career, I saw yet another prediction that the Dallas Cowboys defense will challenge last year's edition in terms of futility. I am trying to resist that kind of presumption of failure, but it is easy to see why so many have given up. For the third year in a row, setting a defensive depth chart for Dallas is like trying to solve a Rubik's cube blindfolded while someone keeps batting it out of your hand. With the daily changes and changing approaches to fitting players to positions, nobody really can tell what this team has.
Just to point all this out, I have put together a chart that tries to draw together all the defensive injuries. This only addresses players who are dealing with something right now, and does not include those who are recently back from some issue, like Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr.
|Player||Status||Expected Role||Projected Replacement/Plans For Player|
|Sean Lee||Out for season||Starter at MLB||Justin Durant/Rolando McClain/Anthony Hitchens|
|DeMarcus Lawrence||Out 3 to 8 weeks||Starter at RDE||Still TBD|
|DeVonte Holloman||Out of football||Backup LB||Probably not on roster yet|
|Orlando Scandrick||Suspended 4 weeks||Starting CB||B.W. Webb/Sterling Moore|
|Matt Johnson||Mythical||Unicorn||He was never there in the first place|
|Henry Melton||Still trying to get back on field||Starting 3 tech DT/Savior||Hopefully, he will be ready for 1st game - but likely to be rusty|
|Josh Brent||Waiting on Goodell||1 tech DT||Probably will not be a consideration until mid-season|
|Anthony Spencer||PUP||Starter at DE (could be either side)||Available sometime week 1 to 6|
|Terrell McClain||Day to day||In rotation at 1 and 3 tech DT||See Henry Melton|
|Amobi Okoye||Walking miracle||Backup DE||Uncertain that he could play this year|
|Ben Gardner||Out for season||Rookie sensation on the DL||No one can replace him in some hearts|
|B.W. Webb||Day to day||Was supposed to fill in for Scandrick||Terrance Mitchell/Tyler Patmon|
For the next pre-season game, the Cowboys will be replacing one starter at cornerback, another at middle linebacker, and all four defensive line positions. Additionally, the uncertainty about who is going to be ready and how the remaining linebackers fit best as far as position means constant shuffling and recombining. Sean Lee's replacement is the key, but until that is determined, all three positions are up in the air. In pre-season, the Cowboys have used both Justin Durant and Rolando McClain, but now Anthony Hitchens, who played the position a lot during the OTAs and minicamp, is going to get another shot at it, according to head coach Jason Garrett.
"Some other guys are more capable of playing Will, some other guys are more capable of playing Sam -- he's suited to play Mike," Garrett said. "That's where we had him and let's put him back there."
If it sounds like the team is just throwing different people out on the field to see what works - well, you may have good hearing. The entire defensive roster is in a state of flux, with players getting hurt and getting healthy as the coaches move them around to find what works the best. Just like the linebackers, the defensive linemen have been shuffled, with tackles playing both 1 and 3 tech, ends moving from side to side, and some players going from tackle to end or vice versa. Meanwhile, Kyle Wilber may play both SLB and RDE in the same game. Dallas continues to scramble for solutions, bringing in LB Jason Phillips, who was just cut by the Eagles. He will certainly not be the last player looked at. Expect a veritable swarm of them after the final cuts on the 30th.
Have we ever seen anything like this? There are more players being tried in different positions late in the pre-season on the Cowboys defense than is normal for three or four seasons. Essentially, as we get ready for the traditional dress rehearsal game, the Cowboys are trying to sort out who will play seven different positions. And not just who the starter and backup will be, but which position each player is best suited for. The indications are that many of the players who make the roster will have position flex, lining up at different spots depending on the situation and who else is available week to week.
To a certain degree, the Cowboys' staff set this all up. They knew Melton might not be quite 100%, that Spencer and Brent might be factors at some point, and that Okoye was a bit of an unknown. But once again, the odd concentration of injuries defensively has forced adjustments and sometimes radical changes to almost all the plans. Getting any significant improvement defensively is going to be a tremendous challenge for Dallas this season. Just look at that chart and try to figure out what the answer is.
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