The highly anticipated 2015 season is almost here. There is excitement in the air as it gets closer to judgment day, when fans finally get a sense of whether the Cowboys offseason moves will be enough to exceed last year's heartbreaking loss in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
Stephen Jones vowed the Cowboys were going to be aggressive in upgrading the pass rush and true to his word - that's exactly what the team did. Just looking at this unit compared to last year has to make people excited. Anthony Spencer and George Selvie are gone. Instead, they have been replaced with younger, stronger, faster, more talented pass rushers.
Greg Hardy is a powerful man. He had a Pro Bowl year during his last full season in the NFL. He's gotten 27 sacks over his last 32 games. The Cowboys front office invested a lot of money to able to inject his pass rushing artistry into the defense. His flexibility allows Rod Marinelli to move him inside if needed and this is a great luxury considering the other edge rushing improvements the team has made.
Which brings me to...
Randy Gregory is going to be a star in this league. You don't usually get a top caliber player with pick 60 in the draft, but the Cowboys might have lucked out on this one. Teams stayed away from Gregory due to his failed drug test before the combine. It is understandable that a player's stock would drop for something like this, but it was surprising to see it drop that much. Gregory is a very skilled pass rusher. Despite his lack of weight, he plays very strong. He's got good fundamentals and he's only going to get better with the caliber of coaching he has.
Justin Houston went through the same failed drug test/combine issue in 2011 and it caused him to fall to Kansas City at pick 70, but he has made three Pro Bowls over his four-year career. You just can't pass up talent like that. The key for Gregory is what he does from this day forward. With a great atmosphere in Dallas that has a penchant of bringing out the best in players, you have to like his chances.
The new guys are going to add a lot to this defense, but it doesn't stop there. The Cowboys already had a young nucleus to build upon. Tyrone Crawford was a third-round investment in 2012, but he is starting to show first-round ability. The strength of Crawford allowed Marinelli to shift him to defensive tackle and suddenly this slow edge rusher has become a quick interior rusher. Crawford was very disruptive last season and 2015 could be a big year for him.
Speaking of big year, DeMarcus Lawrence is looking to have a big impact his sophomore season. A fractured right foot hindered his development during his rookie season, but once he came back in week nine - he started flashing signs of why the Cowboys gave up their third-round pick in order to move up and snag him. With the 2013 season so full of defensive let downs, it was such a breath of fresh air to see Lawrence secure a rare Cowboys playoff win with a sack/fumble recovery against the Detroit Lions last year. As a rookie, Lawrence was seen as a little lanky to handle NFL tackles play after play, but he has bulked up over the offseason. He is ready.
The Cowboys look for certain types of players from their Rushmen - strong, explosive, and relentless. It is hard to find players that possess all those traits, but the Cowboys know how to work around it. If you are explosive, but don't have the size - get bigger. If you have the strength, but lack edge rushing explosiveness - move inside to DT. Marinelli has a plan and it's starting to take shape. The Cowboys Rushmen are going to come at you fast.
So if things go as planned and this new and improved pass rush is effective, what does that mean for the team?
The Cowboys defensive backs aren't great. They aren't horrible either, but there isn't a single player that causes offensive coordinators to stay away from them. And when the pass rush isn't there, the secondary becomes a liability for this team. The Cowboys lost their best corner when Orlando Scandrick injured his knee during the final day of training camp. It would look like that would spell trouble for a position group that was already a concern, but people might want to tap the breaks on that way of thinking.
When you look at the linebacker group last year after Sean Lee got hurt in OTAs, everything seemed bleak. The defense turned out to be just fine when a draft investment (Anthony Hitchens) and a trade (Rolando McClain) help solidify the group. This year the Cowboys also have invested a draft pick (Byron Jones) as well as a free agent signing (Corey White) to help improve the cornerback position. Just like last season with the linebackers, these moves don't provide instant relief to the pain of losing your top player, but there are reasons to be hopeful. Corey White looked great in preseason. His coverage was outstanding and he was jumping routes. With more pressure from the defensive line, look for the corners to be making more plays this season. Marinelli's takeaway philosophy has produced dividends in both of his years in Dallas so it's not just coincidence that his teams create turnovers. And now his secondary will be in a position to do their part.
Between Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Byron Jones, Corey White, and Tyler Patmon - it's hard to say which one will flourish the most this season, but a couple of these guys are going to make a real difference.
More chances for the offense
Last season the defense was able to limit the damage as a result of the great ball control from the offense. This year the defense will be able to return the favor a bit.
The departure of DeMarco Murray has given many fans reasons to be concerned as they are fearful that all that work establishing a ball control offense will suddenly fade. The result of the 2015 running back makeover project remains to be seen, but if it doesn't carry with it the same time of possession dominance (and it won't), there will be no reason to panic. The Cowboys defense is equipped to handle some regression.
It is tough to get a good feel for how things are going to play out with the running game in terms of which running back will have the biggest impact. So don't try to. It doesn't matter which of the Cowboys' backs pull away as the best option. The only thing that matters is that the best option can get the job done. The team has three shots at being successful here. If you feel like you are being duped into thinking things are better than they really are, just ask yourself - when was the last time the front office tricked you?
And if the running game falls short of the production Murray provided, remember the offense still has Dez Bryant. Tony Romo is still a great quarterback who's going to have a lot of time to throw the ball. Cole Beasley can't be covered for very long. And Jason Witten is...well, he's Jason Witten.
The Cowboys have had the offensive weapons to jump out ahead of their opponents. They've demonstrated that plenty. Now just imagine how nice it's going to be to throw a legitimate pass rush at a team that has to throw the ball? For the first time in a long time, this Cowboys team is good on offense and should be good on defense. And the improvement on the defensive line will propel this team to the next level.