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Dallas Cowboys Roster 2015: Just How Formidable Can This Pass Rush Be?

The Cowboys went for broke on the defensive side of the ball this year and acquired quite a bit of talent. Particularly, they focused on the defensive line, will it be enough to fortify their forces?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, you gain a few and lose a few but nobody could have been prepared for what the Cowboys were able to add via free agency and now the draft. Gone are the likes of George Selvie, Anthony Spencer and Henry Melton, but Rod Marinelli was able to counter those losses with some adequate acquisitions. Let's take a look at the current crop of defensive linemen and determine how different 2015 should look compared to last season.

There are many tools to use when trying to determine the effectiveness and projected look of the new defensive line. PFF remains a good tool to use for veterans, but I'll also need to use SPARQ and SackSEER for the rookies in order to paint this picture. For the Cowboys, the main goal is creating the most ample rotation, allowing Rod Marinelli to deploy his rushmen while remaining fresh.

We'll start with PFF and the veterans...

DE Greg Hardy 6'4, 281 lbs

Hardy has earned the right to be mentioned first due to his pass rushing pedigree. Despite the off-field concerns, Hardy can bring it through and past the whistle. Hardy would only play in one game last season but played 52 of 57 snaps in that game and graded +1.7. He was able to bring the quarterback down for a sack, had a hit and another hurry. He graded out well in both pass and run defense with 1.3 and 0.2 respectively. The real meat and potatoes come from looking at his career through his PFF grades:

Season Snaps Overall Pass Run Sacks Neg. Plays
2014 52 1.7 1.3 0.2 1 2
2013 954 25.4 19.5 7.5 14 43
2012 769 17 14.7 5.3 13 38
2011 903 -5.1 4.1 -14.6 4 31
2010 402 3.1 3.3 -0.2 2 13

So in essence by dissecting the numbers in this table, Hardy got better in every year. He struggled early on with consistency but once he improved his run defense, Hardy really found his groove. If 2014's start was any indication of what his numbers were to be like, Hardy would have had finished the year with a staggering +27.2 rating. That would include a +20.8 for pass defense, +3.2 in run defense, 16 sacks and 32 negative plays created. Those numbers certainly are on par with the top pass rushers in the NFL. The talent is evident which is exactly what the Cowboys are hoping to get this season with a reduced suspension.

DE Jeremy Mincey 6'3 263 lbs

Mincey was taken in the sixth round of the 2006 Draft. He battled through wrist injuries early on but has got better with the progression of his career. Last season, Mincey had perhaps his best year. Let's take a look at the last five years of his career following his return after sitting out of the league in 2009:

Season Snaps Overall Pass Run Sacks Neg. Plays
2014 813 14.1 16.3 -5.3 8 24
*2013 352 3.8 1.4 4.1 3 14
2012 969 -7.9 -5.9 -4 3 25
2011 974 9.6 11.6 -1.8 8 35
2010 600 0.6 1.3 -0.7 5 25
The * denotes his playing for two teams that season JAX and DEN

Mincey has been a little bit of everything throughout his career but really blossomed in Marinelli's system last season. The thought is that he will be kicked inside this year on passing downs as well as becoming Rod's utility man. It should be known that Jeremy Mincey played for some pretty poor Jacksonville defenses and saw limited action in 2013. Under this current scheme, he'll have the flexibility in year two that was lacking in his first season with Dallas.

DE DeMarcus Lawrence 6'3 251 lbs

Lawrence will be big key in the success of this season, but he must be breathing fresh air after the Cowboys went and got him some help. There are all kinds of reports coming out of Valley Ranch about just how much he's grown into his frame and looks the part of his position for year two. Lawrence missed eight games last season dealing with a broken foot, but really came on strong late in the year.

Season Snaps Overall Pass Run Sacks Neg. Plays
2014 277 +3.5 -0.9 +3.4 2 6

Through nine games including two playoff performances, Lawrence played pretty well rotating time with Mincey and others. The Cowboys will be looking for a leap in his second year, and he'll get his first crack at the starting left defensive end. With other reinforcements being brought in, it should open more doors for Lawrence to get home.

3T Tyrone Crawford 6'4 285 lbs

Crawford is truly on his way to a major success story. Last offseason, Tyrone was coming off an unfortunate Achilles tear that kept him out of action for all of 2013. Dallas was truly in a pickle that season that saw them sign almost anyone they could off the street. In  2014, the Cowboys brought in Henry Melton with the hopes that he would add an experienced pass rusher to the mix. Melton had six sacks but was ultimately outplayed by Crawford. Let's look at the numbers that show Crawford's emergence:

Season Snaps Overall Pass Run Sacks Neg. Plays
2014 739 +19.4 +17.7 -0.1 4 24
2012 303 -1.2 -0.2 -2.0 0 13

The development is certainly the key here, as Crawford was considered the ultimate gym rat at Valley Ranch during his rehab and recovery. Now, with a promising career at three-tech, Crawford should be a mainstay on this line and asset for Marinelli in 2015.

1T Nick Hayden 6'4 292 lbs

Marinelli seems to really like Hayden for whom he's affectionately named "The Golden Cock." He's not the prototypical 4-3 one-technique defensive tackle, but this defense isn't the prototypical 4-3 scheme either. Hayden has been in the league since 2008, and his five-year overlook doesn't excite:

Season Snaps Overall Pass Run Sacks Neg. Plays
682 -25.7 -11.8 -16.5 0 19
2013 843 -34.1 -14.1 -20.3 0 19
2012 Hayden was out of the league
2011 33 0.1 -0.9 0.9 0 2
2010 484 -14.5 -5.8 -8.9 2 13

Nick Hayden may not have the numbers, but  our own Jason Thomas broke him down in detail ( Part IPart IIPart III) to let us know some dirty work he does. Marinelli would never say this but they would like to get more athletic at the position. Terrell McClain (PFF stats not available) will look to mix it up and join the rotation. There are others such as Ken Bishop as well.

Now we take a look at two separate tools that can help us dissect the impact that the rookies can have for the Cowboys. First let's look at SPARQ, which is the hot commodity around the league at this point. SPARQ, as many folks know, is a formula developed by Nike which measures a player's athleticism and provides a composite score. It's a formula that was adapted for the NFL and further developed by the Seattle Seahawks' coaching staff. Now, it seems many teams are using the formula as it has had some pleasant results.

In SPARQ terms, a player is given three numbers to measure their athletic score. The first is a pSPARQ number, followed by their z-Score and NFL% they fall into. Our own O.C.C. broke down the numbers of all the Cowboys picks last weekend. To summarize his words, SPARQ relies on the notion that the bigger, stronger, faster players usually win. Their full dichotomy of how they get to these measurements will not be revealed, yet our friends at Field Gulls have reverse-engineered this to created their own approximation that can help all of us in measuring the Cowboys new talent as it relates to the NFL. Let's take a look at both Randy Gregory and Ryan Russell and see how they compare:

Name Round pSPARQ z-Score NFL%
Randy Gregory (6'5 241 lbs) 2nd 138.5 1.4 92.2 (8th Overall)
Ryan Russell (6'4 269 lbs) 5th 125.1 0.4 66.0 (20th Overall)
* A player with 0.0 z-score and NFL % of 50 denotes Average NFL player

In summary, SPARQ determines that as athletes both Gregory and Russell are superior to the NFL average. Gregory has graded out to be in the 92nd percentile as an NFL player and Russell is in the 66th percentile. However, we know that athleticism isn't everything, so we shift to SackSEER to further determine the two rookies.

Here is how SackSEER breaks down their figures:

  • The edge rusher's projected draft position. These projections use a transformed variable based on NFL Draft Scout's rankings.
  • An "explosion index" that measures the prospect's scores in the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump, and the broad jump in pre-draft workouts.
  • The prospect's score on the three-cone drill.
  • A metric called "SRAM" which stands for "sack rate as modified." SRAM measures the prospect's per-game sack productivity, but with adjustments for factors such as early entry in the NFL draft and position switches during college.
  • The prospect's college passes defensed divided by college games played.
  • The number of medical redshirts the player either received or for which he was eligible.

With all of the above notions, Pro Football Outsiders used their SackSEER tool and this was their projections for the Cowboys new defensive linemen:

Player Explosion Index SRAM PD rate Three-come 5-year Projection Rating
Randy Gregory 1.26 0.57 0.21 6.79 32.2 sacks 89.7%
Ryan Russell 0.29 0.2 0.04 7.25 3.3 sacks 28.2%

Technically speaking, the outlook for Ryan Russell doesn't look as good by these metrics. It almost certainly seems to point at the Cowboys looking at his athleticism as their main tool in his development. Gregory is favorable in every way you measure the young man, but that is expected from a first-round talent.

Unfortunately, neither of these two measuring tools are 100% accurate, but there are some interesting SPARQ scores for a few more Cowboys. Ben Gardner ranked 5th with a score of 129.1 for 2014,  Kenneth Boatright at 126.8 and Davon Coleman coming up the rear with a 90.4. Despite the question of their accuracy. these tools are useful and helpful in determining what to expect in the upcoming season.

The defensive line at this point is a crowded party, but that's exactly as Rod Marinelli would like it. You have just about everything in this story; veterans, rookies, and red-shirts. What's not to like? The key will be finding the right combination of play-makers and depth behind them to improve on the league's reigning 28th ranked pass rush. After looking into what these metrics state, it should be a good indication to where they're headed. Rod Marinelli must be salivating thinking of the possibilities.

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