Now that Dallas Cowboys defensive end David Irving’s four-game suspension has moved from the theoretical to the actual, we can better assess its impact on the Cowboys’ defensive front.
In case you missed it, Irving lost his appeal for the four-game suspension the NFL handed down earlier this year when Irving had a positive test for supplements. Just in case you need a full refresher, here is our Mike Fisher’s original account.
The appeal wasn’t expected to do Irving much good, mainly because players typically lose appeals in these situations, even if, in this case, it seems Irving’s use of the supplement may have simply been an omission of due diligence. Still, the NFL’s policy on these matters is clear and there isn’t much wiggle room. So now Irving becomes yet another Cowboys suspension statistic.
So, what now?
Irving will miss the season’s first four games — home against the New York Giants on Sept. 10, on the road at Denver on Sept. 17, on the road at Arizona on Sept. 25 and at home against the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 1. If there is a silver lining it’s that just one of those teams — the Giants — are coming off a playoff appearance. Though, to be fair, Denver and Arizona aren’t exactly easy places to play. The Broncos have the altitude and a stout defense, and the Cardinals have a raucous home atmosphere now, despite the influx of Cowboys fans that still invade the Valley of the Sun whenever Dallas visits. The Rams, frankly, should be a win.
Irving can continue to practice with the team in training camp and preseason, and even play in preseason games. But once the regular season begins he can’t darken the door of the Star in Frisco until his suspension ends. So it will be up to him to stay in shape in the interim. The first game he is eligible to play will be against the Packers on Oct. 8.
How might this impact the pass-rush production? Well, we already know the Cowboys have some unanswered questions on the front row. But let’s put what Irving has done in his short time in Dallas in context. Here is a list of the players on the Cowboys’ roster that have registered a career sack:
Stephen Paea - 14
Tyrone Crawford - 12.5
Damontre Moore - 10
Demarcus Lawrence - 9
Benson Mayowa - 8
Maliek Collins - 5
Cedric Thornton - 5.5
David Irving - 4.5
Yes, Irving is last on this list. But he’s only last by fewer than 10 sacks and he’s played fewer games than just about anyone on this list (let’s not dwell on the fact that the sack leader is a tackle). That’s part of the reason the Cowboys are so high on the 6-foot-7, 273-pound end. Along with rare measurables for the position, he’s shown the propensity for explosive plays in limited duty.
The Cowboys can muddle through without him for four weeks. The question is how. The Cowboys don’t have an updated depth chart posted. But Ourlads.com and CBSSports.com both have Lawrence starting on the right side and Crawford starting on the left side. However, Crawford is really better suited for tackle at 295 pounds. And we all know that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli likes to use his defensive linemen in waves and in various places. So even if Irving wasn’t going to start, he was going to see time behind whomever played at left end.
So let’s say Crawford moves back outside to left end, as these depth charts suggest. That’s certainly possible. When the Cowboys were desperate for ends early last year they moved Crawford from inside to outside and he was effective. That, coupled with the emergence of Maliek Collins inside, who after a 5-sack rookie season (almost half of Crawford’s career production, by the way) appears entrenched as the starting three-technique tackle, the idea of moving Crawford back outside is the most logical solution. In fact, Crawford’s size can be a real asset at left end.
The bigger question is who gets those game reps that Irving would have gotten at left end? And this depends on how flexible the Cowboys want to be. The Cowboys have two young ends — their first-round pick, Taco Charlton, and Charles Tapper, who was a draft pick in 2016 but might as well be a rookie because he missed last season due to injury. Additionally, there’s Damontre Moore, the former Texas A&M stud who was last in Seattle, and veteran Benson Mayowa. I suspect they’ll all see reps in various places on the defensive line at training camp and the preseason. But the player this probably helps the most is Tapper.
At 270 pounds, Tapper has the size to be a prototypical left tackle, certainly more than either Moore (250 pounds) or Mayowa (240 pounds). Charlton is in Tapper’s weight class, and I could see him getting left-side reps. But I think the Cowboys are more interested in seeing how he develops on the right side (For what it’s worth, OurLads and CBSSports has Charlton as Lawrence’s backup on the right side). Tapper, right now, is penciled in behind Irving. While all ends are expected to rush the passer, left ends need to be a bit more well-rounded. They’re usually asked to support in run defense more than the right end. Tapper exhibited some of those traits at Oklahoma, where he was an All-Big 12 selection.
Now, the problem is we really don’t know if Tapper can be that type of player at the NFL level. He didn’t play a game last year and we really only have practice tape and practice reports to go on. What has been reported is encouraging. But it’s by no means enough to say that you can count on Tapper to be that sort of player right away. And this is all assuming that all of these assumptions are correct. The Cowboys may have other plans.
The good news is the above scenarios apply whether the Cowboys expected Irving to start or be a backup to begin the season. So that’s good news. Irving’s suspension doesn’t put the Cowboys in near the pickle that Lawrence’s suspension put them in last year.
But, still, four games without Irving is something the Cowboys must account for. It creates risk in that injuries are likely to happen and that could sap their depth further. But it also creates opportunity in that someone — likely Tapper — will now get more reps in camp and more opportunities to impress coaches and prepare for the season. If Tapper capitalizes and grows as a player, that makes the Cowboys’ front four better.
If he doesn’t? Then those four weeks need to fly by and Irving needs to be more vigilant about what he puts in his body.