[Ed. note: This is part one of a two-part post. Jim Scott will provide the counterpoint later today.]
We've grown accustomed to Will McClay and Stephen Jones working miracles by bargain shopping in free agency. In fact, we've seen other people's scraps become solid contributors for the Cowboys recently. However, that hasn't translated to much success along the defensive line. The Cowboys simply don't have a pass rush, at least not one that scares any opposing offenses. The news of Randy Gregory's four-game suspension for a failed drug test has thrown an even bigger wrench into their hopes for 2016. Dallas must now doubel down on its efforts to finally fix their deficiency along the defensive line.
Let's discuss this deficiency, shall we? You see, the Cowboys haven't had a double-digit sack artist since Jason Hatcher did so back in 2013. Another fun fact, the Cowboys have failed to reach 40+ sacks on the season since 2011, a year in which they ranked 7th in total sacks. Since then, they have increasingly gotten worse as a pass rushing unit, falling as far as 28th in the league in 2014. This season, they snuck up three spots to 25th but only got three more sacks than 2014 with 31 total.
All their effort in 2015, signing Greg Hardy, drafting Randy Gregory and Ryan Russell, and extending Tyrone Crawford did not bring about the anticipated results, and now they enter 2016 with Hardy, Jeremy Mincey, and Jack Crawford set to hit free agency. Sacks may not be everything, but man does it sure help a lot.
The Cowboys are in more than just a pickle because except maybe for Crawford, they're not sure if they really want any of those guys back. So once again they are sitting with a pass rushing unit that you can't even get to the game on Sunday. A lot of folks are going to write columns telling you that this latest suspension is going to elevate the Cowboys' interests in Joey Bosa or Noah Spence. I'm going to tell you that they have continued interest in building through the draft, but getting a great start in free agency is going to be the way to go.
Sure, spending big in free agency has its risks, risks this team and especially Stephen Jones is all too familiar with. However, the likelihood of any premier pass rusher in this year's draft being anything close to Khalil Mack of the Oakland Raiders is slim at best. The Cowboys will have to reluctantly come to the free agency table in March with their checkbook in hand. Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, only 28 rookies have posted double-digit totals and none has done so since Von Miller and Aldon Smith in 2011. This is precisely the reason the team needs to highly consider acquiring, at least, two free agent pass rushers. Sure, they will certainly cost more, but something has got to give here.
When you only bring in mid-level free agents, you get mid-level results. It's time to find guys that can help bolster this unit immediately rather than continuously relying on cheaper acquisitions and expecting bigger results. As the Cowboys stand right now they have DeMarcus Lawrence (8 sacks in 2015) as their premier rusher and left end. They also have Tyrone Crawford (5 sacks) as their three-tech penetrating defensive tackle. Beyond that, nothing is solidified. In an offseason where the salary cap is expected to jump up to about $155 million, the Cowboys need to shop. Here are a few options:
Offer DE Olivier Vernon 5-years $53-60 Million
Vernon is a much more unknown commodity than people think. However, with the cap going up, so will the price. Originally, Vernon was given a $20-24 million projection from OverTheCap.com, but that number has certainly risen here. People will pay for young pass rushers and Vernon seems to be the next guy looking to cash in big. The Cowboys need a difference maker in their pass rush stable and Vernon is trending up. Vernon also brings a lot less baggage to the party than Greg Hardy.
Vernon has played every game since entering the NFL and is still fairly young at 25-years old. The Dolphins have concerns with both Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake. Suh's cap figure is very high and they could choose to restructure his contract. Wake is reportedly already discussing terms on an extension in hopes that it will free up more resources to keep Vernon. However, the franchise tag could be a bit too pricey at $15.4 million for one season. One thing is certain, the Dolphins have under $9 million in cap space, some room will be needed.
If Dallas is able to lure Vernon, that gives them an adequate replacement for Greg Hardy, and more insurance than a rookie is going to offer.
Offer DE/OLB Bruce Irvin 5-years $38-43 Million
Here is a player that the Cowboys showed interest in back in the 2012 Draft. Irvin was swept up by the Seahawks with the 15th pick and used as a pass rush specialist. He mainly played as an OLB for the Seahawks but may be looking for another home with Seattle having pressing needs elsewhere and declining his 5th-year option last season.
The jury is out on if Irvin is a full-time starter or not, but in a weak pass rushing draft class, Irvin will pique more interest. Irvin had 5.5 sacks for the Seahawks this past season. At 6'3, 260 lbs, Irvin is built similarly to Gregory.
One thing Irvin knows how to do is bring down the quarterback. He seems to fit what the Cowboys want to do and they were high on him once before. He'll likely make a lot more as an outside linebacker than a defensive end as he is right below Von Miller on the free agency list.
Offer DE Robert Ayers 3-years $16-17 Million
This would be a bridge player signing all the way but Ayers has been successful even though he'll be north of 30 years old this season. In a season where the New York Giants struggled mightily on defense, Ayers racked up 9.5 sacks, a career best. That alone should get him on the Cowboys' radar but also might make him a priority for New York. His market will not be too high due to the youth that is set to hit free agency as well. However, on a three-year modest deal, he could help the Cowboys continue to build while maintaining themselves as a contender.
These, of course, are just three players that have piqued my interest. There are certainly others with Malik Jackson (4-years, $44 million) and the soon to be very rich Muhammad Wilkerson (5-years, $70 million) also possibly hitting the open market.
The point is that the Cowboys needed pass rushing help yesterday. It's time for the front office to be a bit more aggressive in their approach to free agency and quit expecting to get what they want from bargain bin players. It's going to take some spending to build back a championship-caliber run. Make no mistake, the Cowboys' are in dire straits when it comes to their pass rush. If they don't make a significant effort to rectify this problem, expect more of the same in 2016.
They need playmakers on their defensive front and that may even warrant reconsidering Greg Hardy. Dallas really needs to leave no rock unturned in finding some help, even if it means making one or two savvy moves in free agency. They can't pay everyone, but they certainly need to pay someone. What they have is just not cutting the mustard, folks.