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Cowboys face difficult decisions on defensive line

Ben Gardner is one of several players who are fighting for a roster spot on the Cowboys' defensive line. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports

IRVING, Texas -- Two seasons ago the Dallas Cowboys were hurting so much on the defensive line that they were signing guys on a Tuesday and having them play key roles on a Sunday.

As they prepare for the final cuts this Saturday, the defensive line competition is the most difficult to figure. Teams like to say, ‘We’re going to cut some players who can play in this league,' all the time. It’s a good line to make it seem like they are overflowing with talent, but it’s rarely true. There is not a player at the tip of your tongue that you say, ‘How could the Cowboys have cut that guy?’ over the past few years.

And there might not be a player on the line who will be cut that you will say belonged on this roster. But the Cowboys will jettison a player or two up front who really can play in this league.

“I think it’s good, tough decisions, I really do,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “Got some length. Long, rangy, young guys that we’ve liked and we’ve taken.”

In the final 53-man roster projection, I had the Cowboys keeping nine defensive linemen. Greg Hardy did not count because of his four-game suspension. I went with DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Nick Hayden, Jeremy Mincey, Randy Gregory, Jack Crawford, Terrell McClain, Ryan Russell and Davon Coleman.

I contemplated a 10th defensive lineman -- and even an 11th -- among the trio of Ken Bishop, Ben Gardner and Lavar Edwards.

The Cowboys will have the same discussions between now and Saturday’s cuts. Keeping more linemen is possible, but there comes a point of overkill since it’s difficult to dress more than eight defensive linemen on the gameday roster.

The starting four are clear: Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Hayden and Mincey. Gregory and Jack Crawford are locks. When healthy, McClain can contribute at both tackle spots. Russell still has some development to do, but he was a fifth-round pick. Coleman has been active in practices since the first day of camp.

One of the top attributes Marinelli wants in his defensive line (after relentlessness) is pass rush. Coleman has the edge from the defensive tackle spot over Bishop. Edwards has more length than Gardner, but Gardner has more moves and can play special teams.

If the Cowboys don’t keep Bishop, who played well in their playoff loss last January to the Green Bay Packers, they won’t have a lot of interior bulk.

“That’ll definitely be one of the positions that we’ll have to make some hard decisions on,” coach Jason Garrett said.

What has made the team's job difficult is that Coleman, Bishop, Edwards and Gardner all had shining moments in Thursday’s game against the Houston Texans.

Coleman had three tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. Bishop had five tackles and two quarterback hurries. Edwards had five tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry and a sack. Gardner had four tackles, two tackles for loss and a hurry.

“We know that, as a group of us in there, we’re fighting for spots,” Gardner said. “I’ve said it before, but I think we’re as deep as any defensive line in the league. We have three waves of guys that can really play and the six of us out there [Thursday] were able to put some good pressure on, and I was proud of the way we fought.”

Update: Gardner lost his chance of making the 53-man roster. He was informed of his release Friday but could be brought back to the practice squad if he isn't claimed by another team.