For the past two years, since the Dallas Cowboys made the switch back to the 4-3 defense, the need for an improved pass rush from the defensive line has been glaringly evident. And given the often stated desire of the top decision-makers to build primarily through the draft, that means that the team will be looking hard for defensive linemen in the first three rounds of the draft, where the best talent obviously resides.
Or does it?
I recently took a look at the current roster the Cowboys have, and noticed just how many of what Rod Marinelli calls his rushmen are already under contract. This includes not only players that have proven themselves to a degree on the field like Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence, but many of the group that OCC labeled "Medical Redshirts". And now the Cowboys have added Greg Hardy. Once his assumed suspension is done, he should provide an immediate impact in the pass rush that will serve as a kind of spearhead. He is the kind of talent on the field that will likely elevate the play of those around him as other teams have to put extra effort into keeping him from leveling their quarterbacks. Although there are a lot of unknowns in the players that were not on the field last season, there has to be a reason the team has kept so many around. The coaches and personnel staff must see things that we as fans are not privy to and if they are right (and the success of the 2014 season gives legitimate reason to have some faith in them), then the pass rush may be in good shape with the tools already at hand.
Although it is still very early in the Process, there are also hints that the defensive line may not be the priority in the draft that many assume. While the decisions about whom will be taken will be driven by who is actually available when Dallas goes on the clock, things may be shaping up for the Cowboys to use the earlier selections at other positions where the team is actually more in need, such as defensive backs, running back, and linebacker.
An additional hint in this direction is the early names that are showing up for visits to Dallas and private workouts for the team. This is going to grow, but so far, the list includes running backs in bunches, plus some DBs, a couple of LBs, some tackles, a wideout, and even a couple of QBs. Not one defensive lineman has shown up. Some will almost certainly be added (such as Malcom Brown, just profiled by Dawn Macelli), but no one has been identified yet. Given that not even the compulsively loquacious Jerry Jones has talked up any college pass rushers, this could be an indication that the Cowboys are not as focused there as on the other needs the team has.
This is not an abandonment of the idea of building through the draft. It is instead a possible indication that the team feels it is about to reap the benefits of past work. Those stockpiled D linemen may now be a reservoir of players that allows the team to shift focus. Considering the way Marinelli deployed his forces last season, the team is looking for eight to ten players for the 53-man roster to provide the rotation of fresh bodies to wear down the opposing offensive line. They have enough bodies right now to be able to find that many, assuming that the team has actually assembled sufficient talent so far.
Currently Dallas holds the 27th pick in the first round. If the team does not trade down (although they certainly might given past history), then it will be looking for either a first-round talent to slide in a draft that does not have that many legitimate first-round players, or it is going to try to take the most solid second-round level player available. First and foremost, the team will be looking for the best fit for their system. An ESPN article (unfortunately behind their paywall) looked at the best fits for NFL teams, and they came up with a name that is not a pass rusher, but that has been mentioned frequently in conjunction with the Cowboys.
Todd Gurley with the Dallas Cowboys
The fit: Dallas is going to have one of the best run-blocking lines in the NFL next season, if not the best. The Cowboys don't need a dancer, they need a player who will get downhill fast and turn a crease into a big run because he's so hard to get to the ground when he hits the second level. Gurley can do that. Dallas added Darren McFadden, but they won't be done at this position.
It is doubtful he would be available at 27, but if he is, there is certainly an argument to be made that, if he is healthy, he would be the best value for Dallas there. There are also names like linebackers Eric Kendrick and Benardrick McKinney (one of the identified Dallas visitors) and corners Kevin Johnson (another visitor), Alex Carter and Marcus Peters who would address some issues Dallas faces.
As Michael Sisemore notes, Dallas does have several defensive line options to consider, but they do not necessarily have to take one early to still get a player that can be an asset. It will be interesting to see what kind of defensive linemen do eventually get invited to visit. If they are players who slot more into the later rounds, then that would be one more sign that our expectations need some adjustment before draft day.