Of all the things that went wrong with the Dallas Cowboys defense last year, perhaps no position was more to blame than the interior players on the defensive front. The transition from a one-gap penetrating scheme under Rod Marinelli to a two-gap system under Mike Nolan was doomed from the start, based on a multitude of unfortunate circumstances.
For starters, Nolan’s scheme did not suit the interior bunch returning from the 2019 squad. Former second-round pick Trysten Hill had above-average arm length and enough size to hold his own against attacking offensive linemen.
Still, his fit as a two-gap player relied on him being more technically sound with his hand placement, which was a significant area of concern for him entering the league. The two-gap system was also going to mask Hill’s greatest asset, which was his explosion and acceleration off the snap.
Antwaun Woods was even less suited to play the position with below-average arm length that consistently put him at a disadvantage. His effort was sure to give him a fighting chance, but too often in 2020, double teams put him in the linebackers’ laps.
On top of that, third-round pick Neville Gallimore was a shaky fit in the system as well, similar to Hill, where his abilities would shine brighter shooting gaps. Throw in that Gallimore, Hill, and Woods were all denied the opportunity to get a head start without OTA’s or preseason games, and it seemed inevitable that this transition would not end well.
Swing and a Miss
In the end, Nolan and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula were let go, and Dan Quinn was brought in to right the ship. However, improving up the middle on this front will be essential to this defense’s success in 2021.
Which Cowboys Defensive Tackles Are Returning?
The addition of Quinn means good news for some of the Cowboys returning defensive tackles. While Dallas has been vague about their defensive scheme, it’s sure to have similar principles to what Quinn did in Atlanta and Seattle.
That means we are likely to see a combination of one and two-gap players. While some positions (4/5-tech end, 1-tech tackle) are going to be similar to the linemen Nolan required in his base defense, the three-technique is a one-gap penetrator in Quinn’s system.
That means Gallimore and Hill will have a natural position playing the same spot Grady Jarrett did in Atlanta. Both should see reps there, and either could be poised for a breakout campaign.
Justin Hamilton was one of the few players Dallas had in 2020 that is a natural two-gap lineman and will get his chance to make this team as a reserve at nose tackle. Woods will likely compete in that role as well.
While I don’t see a spot where his skill set can shine in Quinn’s defense, it’s hard to move on from a guy that plays with his effort and intensity. Woods may have been out of position a year ago, but the approach he brought to the table every day was a valuable lesson to the younger players on this roster.
Bring in the Reinforcements
Then, we have our free-agent signees. While Brent Urban can play as a defensive tackle, his natural position is going to be at the 4/5-tech spot which is technically a defensive end.
We will address his role when we discuss the ends, so let’s focus on former-Texan Carlos Watkins. I was a big fan of him coming out of Clemson, and he is currently the best-suited player to start as a one-technique in our defense.
At 310 pounds with arms just under 35 inches, he’s tailor-made to be a nose tackle in a two-gap scheme and was quietly one of Houston’s more important players on that defensive front.
2020 Additions Not Likely to Return?
Dallas could move on from Woods, but I would view that as a decision made in his best interest as opposed to ours. In the right scheme, he is a starting-caliber nose tackle, and it may turn into a scenario where he is traded or released to pursue a starting job elsewhere.
However, he is still on this roster, making Eli Ankou the only player who is not set to return in 2020. Ankou was brought over in a midseason trade with hopes of adding a defensive tackle better-suited to play for Mike Nolan.
While he saw time in seven games as a reserve, Ankou didn’t blow us away by any means. Still, as the offseason moves on, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him brought to camp to push for one of the final spots on this roster.
What Do Cowboys Need at Defensive Tackle?
The Cowboys have invested top-100 picks in both Hill and Gallimore in back-to-back drafts. That should make them the front-runners to rotate at the three-tech position. That pair will also likely line up together on the inside of our nickel defense.
I’m not saying that Dallas won’t spend another day-two pick here if the value is right, but the focus will be more heavily skewed towards finding a nose that can rotate with Watkins. However, this is not typically a position the Dallas front-office has placed a high value on during recent drafts.
The Cowboys aren’t alone in that stance, as nose tackles tend to slide in the NFL Draft annually. Because bigger players are often less capable of rushing the passer, scouts value them less in this process.
Recent Draft-Day Slides
In 2013, Star Lotulelei was arguably one of the top players in the draft, and he fell to 14. He’s started 107 games in seven seasons, averaging nearly a solo tackle a game in that span, despite being a player that usually takes on double teams.
Two years later, I had Danny Shelton as a lock to go in the top ten, and he fell to 12. He’s made 247 tackles in 87 games over the last six seasons.
Also, it’s not just first-round candidates that slide either, and Dallas could very well find a player with a top-100 grade on day three at the position.
Cowboys Draft Targets at Defensive Tackle
Christian Barmore, Alabama
Alabama’s Christian Barmore is my top defensive tackle in this class. He has a combination of size and athleticism that will make him a fit in any scheme, and Barmore also has significant value as an option to get after the quarterback.
The issue with him is Barmore has rarely had to show a high level of technique to have success, thanks to his natural gifts. That won’t be the case in the NFL. He has to learn to consistently shoot out of his stance low while deploying better hand placement along with the footwork to stay on balance.
Barmore’s lack of refinement could see him slide in the first round. If Dallas were to move down from the tenth selection, he would be part of a group of prospects they should consider in the middle of day one.
Iowa’s Dayvion Nixon or Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike would likely fit better as three-techs in this scheme and will hear their names called in round two. USC’s Jay Tufele isn’t far behind them with a slightly more versatile skill set and could be an option with the early third-round pick at 75.
Nose Tackle Options
The third round could also be the Cowboys’ best chance to find a true nose tackle. North Carolina State’s Alim McNeill, Ohio State’s Tommy Togiai, and USC’s Marlon Tuipulotu are all valued in that range and could compete to start immediately at the position.
LSU’s Tyler Shelvin could slide into day three and has been a massive run-stuffer his entire career in Baton Rogue. I’d also keep my eye on Arkansas’ Jonathan Marshall as an option at the nose.