Arguably the most pressing need for the Dallas Cowboys this offseason is defensive tackle. On a young and highly talented defense, Rod Marinelli’s rushmen are thin along the interior. Could a reunion with a formerly underrated defender be in order in free agency?
Who’s on the roster?
Maliek Collins is a solid player but is more of a depth defender or low-to-mid-level starter instead of a front-line or premier 3-technique. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, his performance since being drafted in the third round in 2016 isn’t worthy of the kind of lucrative extension garnered by franchise defenders. A team-friendly deal as a rotational defensive lineman is more palatable.
Antwaun Woods was signed as a free agent a week after being cut by the Tennessee Titans last spring. He rose from obscure camp body to full-time starter in 2018.
The former Trojan possesses good play strength and burst at the 1-technique spot. He has the potential to be a fixture as a stalwart, shaded nose tackle for the next three to five years, but he’s also entering the last year of his deal at a position the longtime defensive coordinator tends to value less than his colleagues.
Tyrone Crawford is an all-around defensive lineman and a leader in the clubhouse, but Dallas would prefer to keep him at defensive end. He’s the last of the defensive tackle candidates on the current roster.
Cowboys Free Agents
David Irving is uber-talented but uber-unreliable. His family issues often prevent him from participating in practice or games. He, along with Datone Jones and Caraun Reid, are unrestricted free agents. Daniel Ross is an exclusive-rights free agent, essentially meaning the Cowboys could easily keep him on their 90-man roster for training camp if they so choose.
There’s no guarantee Jones, Reid, or Ross will return, and they’re not markedly better than anyone else in the free agent talent pool. Irving is most likely gone, simply because he’s too high-maintenance and no longer worth the investment.
Because of this, one can argue there are no long-term options at either of the defensive tackle positions for Dallas.
Preparing for the Draft
A common refrain during draft season is that teams use free agency, which opens with the new league year on March 13, to fill holes on their roster so they can approach the draft without being handcuffed by any glaring needs. For the Cowboys, that means signing at least two more defensive tackles.
Does this open the door for a reunion with Terrell McClain?
Originally acquired by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, McClain bounced between four different teams before beginning a three-year stint in Dallas in 2014.
The South Florida alumnus seldom reached his potential during his first two seasons and was sidelined for much of 2015. However, he went on to have a career year in 2016. Playing mostly as a 1-technique with the versatility to fill in at the under tackle (3-technique) position, the then-28-year-old reached career highs in solo tackles (21), total tackles (39), sacks (2.5), forced fumbles (2), and quarterback hits (7). He also matched a previous best of three tackles for loss.
McClain is once again a free agent after spending 2017 with Washington and 2018 with Atlanta. Although he’ll be 31 at the start of 2019, bringing the well-traveled veteran back into the fold at the right price makes sense for both parties.
McClain possesses good play strength and pursuit skills in the run game. In one-on-one situations, he’s able to push smaller centers into the backfield to disrupt running plays. On this outside zone run at Green Bay in 2016, he strikes with a low pad level and thrusts center JC Tretter into Eddie Lacy for a loss of two yards.
He also has good hand usage as a backside defender on outside zone runs. In this play against the Cowboys in 2018, he defeats La’el Collins’s reach block attempt with lateral agility and a subtle pull move that unbalances the right tackle and frees McClain to make the stop.
He has the strength and anchor to stalemate double teams as well as stand his ground at the point of attack and shed blockers. On the play below, he maintains his balance through the combo block of Zack Martin and Collins, then sheds the All-Pro guard to meet Ezekiel Elliott at the line of scrimmage.
As a pass rusher, he plays with good get-off and burst at the snap to penetrate his gap. He showcases lateral agility on slants or stunts to catch blockers off-guard with sufficient change of direction skills and closing burst to finish plays.
He must win with his initial move in the passing game, otherwise, McClain’s rush will be stifled. On this play against Dallas, he misses with his two-hand swipe and is easily picked up by Xavier Su’a-Filo. McClain does manage to cut back to the A-gap but is stopped by Joe Looney.
When the nine-year veteran is beaten in the run game, it’s usually because he’s ridden or redirected out of the lane by the blocker. In these situations, his change of direction and stop-start ability are below average. On the zone lead run below, he attacks the B-gap on the outside shoulder of Martin and is unable to slow the guard’s angle block. He then exposes his back to Martin in a desperate attempt to chase Elliott.
The following week at New Orleans, McClain lines up as the shaded nose tackle or 1-techinique. It can be difficult to see, but at the snap, he takes a step into the A-gap nearest him. This gives center Max Unger an easier angle to seal him from the play. Unger is able to push McClain aside and widen the lane by one or two yards.
Terrell McClain best fits in Rod Marinelli’s scheme as a rotational defensive tackle that can back up both the 1-technique and 3-technique positions. He’ll primarily play as a nose tackle but can fill in at under tackle when needed and is a player you can win with. His good play strength, get-off, and lateral agility allow him to defeat most one-on-one situations against solid or worse competition to penetrate gaps and contribute on slants and stunts.
Due to his age, he probably won’t be as dynamic as he was in 2016, but his previous experience with the club will make for a smooth transition. His fun and enthusiastic attitude should also mesh well with the 2019 version of the ‘HotBoyz’.
McClain provides limited pass rush and lacks the ability to recover if his first move fails. This is also true in the ground game, where he can run himself out of the play. He’ll lose more often than he wins against top tier competition but will remain competitive against everyone else.
With Dallas not having a first-round draft pick this year, there’s no telling who will fall to them at No. 58, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be an upgrade at defensive tackle. Despite the consensus of this year’s draft class being deep in defensive linemen, a better player at another position may end up being their selection. Their best bet to solidify or upgrade their interior rushmen lies in free agency or trade. There’s word that Gerald McCoy could be released by Tampa Bay. He does have a first-round pedigree and plays at a more important position but, like McClain, he’ll be 31 this year. Unlike McClain, McCoy will cost a lot more. It’s possible the Cowboys target both players, but adding two 31-year-olds is unlikely and could be counterproductive.
Ultimately, McClain is a solid piece to add to a rotation and should be available at an affordable price. If the Cowboys miss out or don’t target McCoy, then a one-year deal for McClain makes a lot of sense.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.
*Mandatory Photo Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports