Cowboys' D-line looks ready to return to dominant form

Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence had 14.5 sacks last season. Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire

FRISCO, Texas -- Tyrone Crawford showed a bit of his age last week when he was asked if the current crop of Dallas Cowboys defensive linemen is the best that he has been around.

"I mean, are you talking about when Ratliff, D-Ware, Spence and Hatcher were all here?" Crawford said.

That was 2012, Crawford's rookie year, which might as well have been a generation ago in NFL years. Jay Ratliff, DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher all made at least one Pro Bowl. Ware is the franchise leader in sacks and destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Spencer was a first-round pick. Before DeMarcus Lawrence's 14.5 sacks in 2017, Hatcher was the last Cowboy to record a double-digit sack season. Ratliff was selected to the Pro Bowl four times.

Of the current defensive linemen, only Lawrence has played in a Pro Bowl, but as the Cowboys get ready for 2018 they could have their best line since switching to a 4-3 scheme in 2013 with Rod Marinelli as the line coach.

"I'm more excited to get this thing going than ever," Crawford said. "The defensive line, we've got a lot of weapons and with what we've shown so far in workouts, I'm excited to see these guys on the field. It's going to definitely be a fun year. I'm ready for everything Coach Marinelli has to coach us and we'll see how it goes."

Starting in 2011, the Cowboys made it a priority to rebuild their offensive line with first-round picks. Tyron Smith was followed by Travis Frederick in 2013 and Zack Martin in 2014. La'el Collins was a first-round talent but fell to an undrafted free agent. Last month, the Cowboys took Connor Williams in the second round and project him to be their starting left guard.

The defensive line has been built a little differently but with quality picks. Crawford was a third-rounder in 2012. Lawrence was a second-rounder in 2014. Taco Charlton was a first-round pick last year. Maliek Collins was a third-rounder in 2016.

The Cowboys have also picked up other high-round picks from other teams, such as Datone Jones (first round, Green Bay Packers 2010), Kony Ealy (second round, Carolina Panthers 2014). Dallas traded for Jihad Ward (second round, Oakland Raiders 2016).

The Cowboys also showed prudence in signing David Irving off the Kansas City Chiefs' practice squad in the lost 2015 season in which they finished 4-12. He had seven sacks in eight games a year ago.

"It's obviously been a focus of ours and if we can wake up here with 10, 12 guys that we normally think would be penciled in to make the team and have that type of competition level and that kind of depth, it can only make us better," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "We're firm believers that our team starts at the front."

Perhaps come training camp the Cowboys will get another talented piece to the defensive front in Randy Gregory. He was a second-round pick in 2016 but has played in only two games the past two seasons because of suspension. He is close to filing for reinstatement to the NFL, and the Cowboys are not ready to give up on a talent that was projected to be a top-five pick if not for his off-field troubles.

Within the group there is versatility. Crawford can play all four spots. Lawrence can play either side. Irving has been disruptive as the 3-technique and can play end as well. Collins, who is recovering from foot surgery but should be ready for the season opener, can play either interior spot. Marinelli believes Ealy can play inside, too.

"He's a big man, that's a 295-pound man. Too much big," Marinelli said. "Too much big. So we're going to get him [to lose some weight]. That's a nice way to say it. We're going to get him down a little and get the movement going."

Ward did not meet expectations in Oakland, but Marinelli already has a nickname for him, Dr. J.

"I had him in the Senior Bowl, loved him," Marinelli said. "Had him at end and it was a tick delay. And I moved him inside and bam. Now, I don't want to oversell this guy. I don't want to do that until we play football."

Marinelli doesn't want to oversell the group yet, either.

"I really like the guys we've got," he said. "And they work. I mean they come out and they go. They know what the tempo is. It's always been our calling card -- our movement and our speed, some of those things. So far so good with them. But whatever's happened in the past, don't matter now. We have to put our socks back on and be ready to go."