Continuing our series on finding where the Cowboys may have improved, we enter maybe the most obvious of all positions. Did the Cowboys improve at defensive end?
2014: Jeremy Mincey, DeMarcus Lawrence, George Selvie, Anthony Spencer, Jack Crawford, Ben Gardner (IR)
2015: Greg Hardy, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jeremy Mincey, Randy Gregory, Ben Gardner, Jack Crawford, Ryan Russell
RDE- Greg Hardy
Now that the Cowboys will have his services for at least 12 games, it certainly looks as though he will have a huge impact on the roster this season. Despite the court of public opinion, Hardy remains one of the best pass rushers in the league. That's all I will focus on talking about. He had two straight double-digit sack seasons before his incident. Hardy must focus on rewriting his career at this point. At 26, he's still young enough to do so, the Cowboys hope he can be a difference maker. All offseason long, we've heard good things about the way he practices and the intensity he brings. I specifically remember Mickey Spagnola discussing the importance of adding impact players that excite the entire team. Hardy is the type of player that if he remains on the right path and focused on doing what he's capable of, that it will certainly translate to the rest of the roster.
LDE- DeMarcus Lawrence
Perhaps the one guy that may excite the most people is Lawrence. He was coming on pretty strong at the tail-end of last season and has transformed his physique in the offseason. At the left position, Lawrence will have a tremendous opportunity to get pressure and sacks. He's got that high-intensity that Marinelli loves with the motor and talent to match. The Cowboys gave up some collateral to get his services and he's looking forward to the challenge. Lawrence had his season cut short due to a foot injury early in training camp last season, but there are a lot of eyes on him in his second year. Knowing Marinelli, he's going to always deploy his best pass rushers in order to keep quarterbacks intimidated. Having Lawrence opposite Hardy is one helluva intimidation factor.
RDE/DT- Jeremey Mincey
Last year's sack leader becomes this year's utility man on the defensive line. Mincey showed great leadership last season and has the versatility that Marinelli can't get enough of. He's finally found a home where he fits like a glove and has such great intensity. There is no reason that Mincey cannot become one of Dallas' best relief rushers. This defense does it's best to keep rushers refreshed, Mincey will be coming from different angles in 2015. Jeremy Mincey is a good player and PFF tends to agree. He was 16th out of all 4-3 ends and had a +7.9 grade with an +11.1 in pass rushing downs. Mincey is a factor and we've heard a lot about this NASCAR package, he definitely wants to be a part of it too.
RDE- Randy Gregory
For the Cowboys to have acquired both the best 4-3 end via free agency and arguably the best in the draft is just plain insanity. Gregory will not be forced to start right away and must gain even more bulk, but he's a big part of the rebuilding of this defensive line. Gregory has been pretty good thus far in practice but we need to see his abilities in pads out in Oxnard. He's got a great dip to add to his already somewhat polished pass rushing maneuvers. He can make himself smaller coming off the edge and get by would-be blockers. Gregory should be able to make an impact in a limited role as he learns the position at the NFL level. It also doesn't hurt that he's had some good battles with perennial All-Pro tackle Tyron Smith.
LDE- Ben Gardner
Without letting the comments explode into the stratosphere, Gardner is set to make his debut after red-shirting his first season. At Stanford, Gardner fit every criteria that Marinelli looks for in a rusher. He plays with the same high intensity as mentioned earlier and has a motor that doesn't quit. Like Lawrence, Gardner has spent the last year getting his body ready for the NFL. Bryan Broaddus was very high on the player coming out of college and the Cowboys hope that they stole one with him. He'll look to become a solid contributor to the Marinelli rushmen in 2015. Gardner is obviously a fan favorite of BTB, and the floodgates will open the minute he gets his first sack.
LDE/DT- Jack Crawford
Another very versatile player and the Cowboys residential Englishman. Crawford played well in spot duty last season but will still be in a dead-heat battle to win a roster spot. The coaches seem to really like him and love that he can kick inside and play tackle too. Dallas is really looking for depth players all around that can serve a purpose in limited roles just as much as they are looking at impact guys. Somebody has to be around to spell the big names every now and then, it help with someone like Crawford whom you can at least trust will be in position.
LDE/DT- Ryan Russell
The Cowboys caught some flack for drafting Russell but they felt like he wasn't being used properly in college. They were very high on him at the beginning of his Purdue career. Dallas likes their defensive linemen from Purdue and hope that Russell can give them some of what Anthony Spencer had eventually down the road. This season will be difficult for him to earn playing time, yet he has done rather well in OTA's and minicamp. He's a bit raw but he'll have some of the best coaches around to help him along. Besides, he's another player that the Cowboys can try out at multiple positions.
My take: It's obvious that the Cowboys made improvements here. Last season, the Cowboys manged to get some production, but it wasn't nearly enough. This season they have improved their defensive line. After ranking 28th in the sack category; something had to give. In order for Dallas to take the next step and truly compete with the top teams in the NFC like the Packers or Seahawks, they had to improve their weakest link. Now the Cowboys could have a very formidable presence on the outside. Creating pressure and getting sacks we're priorities one and two on the front office's list and boy did they deliver.