The Dallas Cowboys only managed to bring the opposing quarterback down 31 times this season, that ranked them near the bottom of the league at 25th. Of course, there are a lot of things to consider including injuries and playing time, but the Cowboys only improved three spots from 2014 to 2015. After all the work they did in the offseason to ensure that they were able to get to the quarterback, the returns were minimal to say the least. Now, the Cowboys are faced with some decisions involving their own free agents as well as how to continue to improve along the defensive line. Make no mistake, they aren't set at pass rusher, they have work to do.
When looking at the Cowboys' defensive line needs, first look at the requirements of a Rod Marinelli defense. We know that Marinelli looks at first-step quickness, penetration, and speed. He wants all down-linemen to rush the passer and get there quickly. In essence, that's what a lot of defensive coordinators want out of their rushers but it's imperative for Marinelli's defense to be fast and attacking at all times. It all starts with penetrating tackles and speedy ends. If the tackles are able to attack the pocket, then it's the end's jobs to seal off the edges. In a perfect world, the rushmen will get to you before you can get the ball out.
That's where the Cowboys have been missing some elements in recent attempts to fix their rushing rotation. A few issues cannot go unnoticed:
A.) Tyrone Crawford, the under-tackle, is perhaps the most important player on the field beside the weakside linebacker. Well, you can't overlook the fact that Crawford was playing on a partially torn rotator cuff since about week four. A one-armed under tackle is not going to produce much. Still, Crawford managed to get five sacks out of the season. Not what is expected but he'll be ready to rush the passer at full-strength in 2016.
B.) Nick Hayden has been a solid starter over the past few seasons but athletic, he is not. Bryan Broaddus has claimed for three offseasons now on how they need to get more athletic at the position. The hope was that Terrell McClain would be able to help them. Unfortunately, McClain has been riddled with injuries and has been a non-factor. It's unlike the Cowboys to spend high resources on superior athletes at tackle, but boy if they just would.
C.) The Cowboys got production out of top guys like Greg Hardy, DeMarcus Lawrence, and both Crawfords. However, guys like Hayden and Jeremy Mincey completely zeroed out and that is just very unfortunate.
So what do they do? Gil Brandt and Mel Kiper would have you believe that they need to take a pass rusher with their top pick. Let's examine that.
Option 1- Let Greg Hardy Walk, Draft Joey Bosa or DeForest Buckner
The Cowboys could continue to build on their defensive line through the draft, which they certainly will do in some fashion. In the past two seasons, the Cowboys have drafted two stud pass rushers in round two. Lawrence has certainly come along in his second-year, but still has to prove that he can be consistent in the early months of the season, too. Randy Gregory's ankle injury led to his rookie expectations diminishing rather quickly. Certainly, those expectations will be once again set pretty high in 2016.
With that said, Brandt and Kiper are both on track in thought process but that doesn't mean the Cowboys have to take one of these guys at four. Rookie pass rushers don't tend to blow anyone up in their first year. It takes time for them to get used to the speed of the game and tendencies of offensive linemen. These two top guys have lots of potential but neither one should be elevated to Khalil Mack status, it's just not likely to happen. That what makes it all the more difficult to just discard a presence like Greg Hardy. Surely, drafting one of these guys would be a very solid luxury; it may not be imperative should they figure out something with Hardy that works for both parties.
Option 2- Re-sign Greg Hardy, Draft Later Round Rushmen
Re-signing Hardy comes with aches and painw because of the nuisance he can become in the locker room and he may have just played his last game as a Cowboy. However, he's the only true elite pass rusher they have on the team. Until anyone can prove otherwise, that's how it stands. What if the Cowboys were able to get Hardy signed to another show-me deal while drafting some solid players around him? That seems like it could be a big win. As discussed earlier, the Cowboys like to get penetrating players along the line. This draft will offer some solid options in rounds 2-5 that can be good additions to their squad. I'm leaning toward more of the defensive tackles than ends in this scenario. The Cowboys have a lot of ends and they need a few more solid tackles. Here's a few to consider:
1. Austin Johnson, Penn State- Here's the run-stuffing, powerful-handed tackle that Nick Eatman has been clamoring for years about. He will be at the Senior Bowl and will be coached by the Cowboys, two pluses for those counting at home. The Cowboys have a history of taking guys that they have seen at the Senior Bowl and, this time, they get to coach some. Johnson has a relentless motor and can stack and shed blockers with the best of them. He's perfect to snag in the second round (if he lasts that long) and is an athletic upgrade over what they have.
2. Sheldon Day, Notre Dame- Already being compared as an "Aaron Donald Lite", he projects to be three-technique, something the Cowboys could use in terms of depth. He is also going to be playing on the North Team at the Senior Bowl, so Marinelli will certainly get a good look at him. He's described as a player with explosive quickness and a controlled demeanor. He's able to build up great momentum when attacking the pocket and possesses that motor that never quits. Due to a lengthy injury history, Day is projected as a third- or fourth-round prospect with a ton of upside.
Option 3- Sign Bargain Free Agents, Draft Building Blocks For The Future
This is similar to option 1 but involves a bit more fishing in free agency. The pond seems shallow this offseason as there are not very many names that would really get you to jump. However, if the Cowboys are playing with smart money, they can grab a few guys that can contribute while ridding themselves of the Hardy headache. This is the most likely option because they could add a few pieces while still keeping the main focus on the youth movement. Here are a couple of free agents to consider:
1. Adrian Clayborn, RDE- Being a former first-round 4-3 end already bodes well for guys like Will McClay who love reclamation projects. Clayborn is a 5-6 sack per season player with the potential to be a double-digit contender in the right scheme. If the Cowboys like his motor which also passes the eye-test, then Clayborn could be a solid guy to add to the rotation.
2. Brandon Mebane, DT- Mebane is a little older at 31, but he fits the mold of a solid tackle in this scheme and a guy that could be signed to a 2-3 year deal. Mebane has played well enough to earn an extension with Seattle but that depends on what they do with other big fish on their roster like Russell Okung. Mebane is a bridge player for the Cowboys to use but he's certainly an upgrade over Hayden or McClain.
3. Olivier Vernon, RDE- This is the best candidate to replace Hardy should they let him walk. Vernon has come on strong in the past two seasons and could be headed for a breakout performance in 2016. He played very well for the Dolphins this season and gave Tyron Smith all that he could handle. Vernon is also only 25 years old. Depending on the cost, here is a guy worth watching.
In this scenario, the Cowboys would also be looking for more youth in the draft. Since they love taking pass rushers in the second round, please consider:
DE Carl Nassib, Penn State- Nassib is a long defender that knows how to use his limbs to his advantage. Nassib is the younger brother of Giants' quarterback Ryan Nassib. Carl has all the traits of a 4-3 end with an explosive first step and a great motor. He's known to have a permanent residence in the weight room and is a player of wonderful character. Nassib is a second round prospect that has a very high football I.Q. He has all the skills to succeed at the professional level.
Add Nassib to the list that includes the above mentioned Johnson or Day and you have a recipe for the future. Not to mention this option also includes the further development of Lawrence, Gregory, Crawford and others. Lots of options for the Cowboys but they are well aware that they are far from finished with this defensive line.