ESPNDallas.com's position series takes a look today at defensive end, which is a whole new thing this year as the Dallas Cowboys transition from a 3-4 defensive front to a 4-3. The starters are DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, who were the pass-rushing outside linebackers in the 3-4 but now will line up exclusively with their hands on the ground and rush the passer from the line of scrimmage.
In many ways, as Tim MacMahon writes, the change is likely to simplify things for Ware and Spencer, as they'll no longer have to worry about complexity of scheme or coverage responsibilities and can focus simply on getting to the quarterback. But there are questions:
On the flip side, opposing offenses won’t have to wonder where Ware or Spencer are coming from. Wade Phillips and Ryan were able to occasionally get them unblocked or matched up one-on-one against a tight end or running back with scheme deception.
Another question: Will tangling with offensive tackles every down take a toll on Ware or Spencer?
It's this last that I think bears examination. Ware and Spencer are skilled enough pass-rushers (Ware is an all-time great) that I think they'll be able to pile up sacks even though opposing defenses can see where they are before the snap. The question is whether either or both can handle the physical demands of lining up right in the faces of the league's biggest, strongest, most athletic offensive tackles on every play without wearing down over the course of the season. This has already been an issue for Ware at the end of the past two seasons when he was standing up and moving around the front. And while the nagging injuries of 2011 and 2012 are not guaranteed to repeat themselves in 2013, the new arrangement isn't going to make them easier to avoid.
The Philadelphia Eagles' Trent Cole, who is making the opposite move this season, raised this issue when I spoke to him about his switch during Eagles minicamp. He said the 4-3 defensive end path is "a lot tougher way to go" physically, and he's not the only person to whom I've spoken this offseason who's wondering how Spencer and Ware will handle it. Again, not that they can't handle playing it -- just whether it might take too much of a toll on them physically. The answer may be that there's nothing to worry about, but it's certainly something worth watching during the first year of the 4-3 in Dallas.
In the same piece, Tim mentions the team's high hopes for Tyrone Crawford as the successor to Spencer, who's not likely to be a Cowboy beyond this season. Crawford, of course, needs to show something in his backup role this year for the team to head into 2014 super-comfortable with such an arrangement.