The Dallas Cowboys finished with 31 sacks this season, just three more sacks than what they had in 2014 when the defense ranked 28th in the league. This season they moved up three spots to 25th, but there are certainly more factors to a defense than getting sacks. However, this particular defense will have plenty of decisions to make this offseason and getting to the quarterback is still at the top of that list. With the fourth pick, the Cowboys could choose to take another stab at the problem by selecting a top-end pass rusher. Then again, it has been reported that Dallas will have some money to spend in free agency, too. Either way, the work is certainly not done along the defensive line and chances are strong that it'll be another year where the starting lineup will be affected.
The Cowboys have quite a few decisions looming that could end up giving them more cap space to work with in the offseason. The Cowboys under Will McClay and Stephen Jones don't particularly like to spend a lot in free agency but aren't opposed on using resources for dynamic players. Instead, this front office tends to use free agency as a tool with the draft as their way of solidifying their roster. With that said, the Cowboys will have the resources to do anything they choose this offseason at wherever they decide to do it. First, they have to turn the microscope inward and deal with a few of their own.
Greg Hardy, DE
We've come full circle on this player and now a decision must be made on where to go to next. It doesn't seem likely that the Cowboys are going to be in any rush to get him re-signed. In the last two weeks, Jason Garrett chose not to elaborate much on Hardy or his on-field abilities. Jeremy Mincey flat-out agreed that he became a distraction to the team and if this is the case, Hardy has likely seen his last days in Dallas. If the Cowboys do decide to part with Hardy, rest assured, defensive end becomes a very important position once again. The Cowboys are hardly in the position to just throw Randy Gregory out there and check it off their list. If Hardy is not on the roster, they must find a replacement. Though he only had six sacks, he is still the only pass rusher on the team with multiple years of double-digit performances.
Jeremy Mincey, DE/DT
Mincey is a great locker room guy but he'll be 33 before next season's end and his production suggests nothing more than a bridge player. They may end up needing him for one more year if they let go of Hardy. Mincey is at his best when he's coming off the bench and to his credit, he's always been someone they can count on. Mincey has the skills to remain part of the rotation but at this point, his return hinges on what the Cowboys decide to do in the draft.
Outsiders To Consider:
Olivier Vernon, DE: He's set to hit the market and if you remember the Miami game, he had some success against Tyron Smith. He's still young at 25, much will depend on what Miami decides to do.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DE: His broken leg is something serious to consider and it's not very likely the Jets let him walk because of that. He led all defensive linemen on the Jets with 12 sacks this season and was 6th in the league. The only issue seems to be the paltry $11 million the Jets have in cap space. However, we know all too well that cap-hell is truly a myth.
The 2016 Draft
This year's draft will offer its own slew of talent both at end and tackle that could keep the Cowboys' rebuilding of their defensive line full steam ahead. Let's take a look at the top guys and see what Walter Football has to say this early into the process:
Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
2/19/15: Entering the bowl matchup with Notre Dame, Bosa has totaled 47 tackles with 16 for a loss and five sacks this year. He finished the regular season with good games against Penn State, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan.
Bosa has been solid in run defense this year, but not overwhelming in the pass rush even with single-blocks against weak opponents. Until the Penn State game, Bosa didn't seem as tenacious as past seasons, and he wouldn't be the first highly rated junior who is restraining his play to protect himself from injury.
8/22/15: Bosa will miss the first game of 2015 over a suspension for violating team rules. It will be interesting to see if this comes back to hurt him in the future. In 2014, Bosa recorded 55 tackles with 13.5 sacks, 21 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles and pass defended. He simply lived in opponents' backfields. The 6-foot-5, 285-pounder has quickness to go with natural strength. He has a serious burst off the snap with the speed to turn the corner. The sophomore also displayed good hands to shed blocks while working upfield. Many have compared Bosa to J.J. Watt, but that isn't fair to Bosa as Watt has rewritten NFL record books and is the best player in the NFL. That being said, Bosa is a great prospect who looks like he has the talent to be perennial Pro Bowler and double-digit sacker.
Bosa was one of the best freshmen in 2013 and clearly is full of talent. He racked up 44 tackles with 13.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and one forced fumble that season.
Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State
12/19/15: Ogbah was excellent during the regular season, notching at least one sack in every game except one. He's totaled 61 tackles, 17.5 for a loss, three forced fumbles and 13 sacks in 2015. Ogbah has beaten offensive lineman with strength and speed. He also had a strong showing against Kansas State's Cody Whitehair and Texas Tech's LeRaven Clark, two future NFL competitors.
8/22/15: Ogbah broke out for the Cowboys in 2014 with 11 sacks, 49 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and five passes batted. He has quickness to go with strength and made a lot of plays in the backfield. Ogbah isn't a pure speed rusher or quick twitch, but he has power, plays the run well and has a good motor. As a freshman in 2013, Ogbah had four sacks and 20 tackles while rotating into the game.
A'Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama
12/19/15: This season, Robinson has 42 tackles with 7.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks. He has come on really strong for the Crimson Tide and is showing a combination of power and speed to make plays in the backfield or stuff his gap at the point of attack. Robinson has a versatile skill set to play 3-4 defensive end, nose tackle, or any interior position in a 4-3 defense.
All of Alabama's front seven played well against LSU, but Robinson was the most impressive defender to lead a great team effort. He stuffed a number of runs from Leonard Fournette and also was getting after the quarterback. Robinson followed that up with 2.5 sacks against Mississippi State.
8/22/15: Robinson recorded 49 tackles with 7.5 tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and two passes batted in 2014. In 2013 as a freshman, he was too good to keep on the sideline. Robinson was an impact defender for the Crimson Tide with 38 tackles, eight tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks. He's quick for his size and very strong. Robinson could be the best defensive lineman Alabama has had since Marcel Dareus.
Robert Nkemdiche, DE/DT, Ole Miss
12/19/15: Nkemdiche added to the off-the-field questions he will face from NFL teams when he fell from the fourth floor of an Atlanta hotel room. Marijuana was found in his hotel room.
This season, Nkemdiche has 29 tackles, seven for a loss and three sacks. His best performance of the year was against Alabama with six tackles, one sack and another 1.5 of his tackles were for a loss. Nkemdiche left the game against Memphis with a concussion and missed another contest.
Nkemdiche has a tremendous skill set with the speed and agility of a linebacker. For the NFL, there is no doubt that he has the skill set to be a disruptive presence at the point of attack. However, Nkemdiche struggles to finish plays after breaking into the backfield. He lacks pass-rushing moves and has poor awareness. Thus, Nkemdiche underachieves in production.
Sources say that Nkemdiche isn't a natural pass-rusher, and his lack of sacks in his career illustrates that. They also have a lot of off-the-field concerns with Nkemdiche as one source said that Nkemdiche loves the limelight and wants to be a movie star. Another source said that Nkemdiche's brother Denzel brings a lot of off-the-field concerns with him and Denzel is expected to move with Robert where ever he lands in the NFL.
8/22/15: Laquan Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil weren't the only star recruits to choose Ole Miss in an amazing 2013 class. Nkemdiche was considered to be the No. 1 player in the nation. He certainly flashed more than once in 2013. The freshman totaled 34 tackles with two sacks and eight tackles for a loss that year.
The 6-foot-4, 280-pounder has tons of physical talent with speed and athleticism. He could grow into a defensive tackle. In 2014, Nkemdiche recorded 35 tackles with two sacks. Thus far, he has not looked like a natural pass-rusher. Nkemdiche flashes serious size and speed talent, but lacks consistency. Perhaps that will come as a junior.
Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor
12/19/15: Billings had 37 tackles, 14 for a loss and 5.5 sacks during the regular season. He impresses with his massive power at the point of attack and his burst to get after the quarterback. Billings also shows the speed to close and make tackles outside of his gap. Prior to an ankle injury, Billings was really impressing. After a few games of being held back by the ankle, returned to his previous form and finished the year playing well.
8/22/15: Billings has a lot of athletic potential and could produce more as an upperclassman. As a sophomore, he totaled 37 tackles with 11.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks and one forced fumble. With Shawn Oakman next to him, Billings could see some one-on-one opportunities in 2015.
There are a few other guys that could be had in later rounds, but if the Cowboys decided to spend an early pick on a pass rusher, who's to blame them. The Cowboys are a 4-12 team by the record and they have plenty of places they need to start looking at for improvement. The hope is that some of their own guys can make the jump in the offseason while they bring along the young guys. This is a very young defensive line and something tells me it may get even younger this offseason.