The Cowboys spent major resources on the defensive side of the ball in the 2015 offseason, a first-round pick in the secondary, a second-round pick on the defensive line, and major (albeit conditional) money on a free agent pass rusher they thought would be top of the line. The result of this investment was a measly total of 31 sacks and a tie for the fewest takeaways in NFL history with 11.
With the major periods of player acquisition now behind us, which players on the defense can make some plays to get the group back on track? Of course there are the obvious choices, like Sean Lee and Rolando McClain who both have a history of making big plays, or Orlando Scandrick who missed 2015 with injury, but let's look a bit deeper.
David Irving - The young defensive lineman was a great find by Will McClay when he was signed early in the 2015 season. He was a disruptive player who flashed productivity in a rotational role last season, playing all across the defensive line. Rod Marinelli has praised Irving's ability to bend, comparing him to players like Leon Lett, and has indicated that Irving would be getting his early work at the left defensive end spot, which will likely be in need of a starter early in the season with the pending suspension to incumbent starter DeMarcus Lawrence. Irving's blend of length and athleticism give him the tools to be successful, and the opportunity ahead of him could lead to solid productivity.
Byron Jones - As a rookie who bounced from position to position in the secondary, Jones played a ton of snaps, and was, for the most part, a very solid contributor. In many cases he was close to making very important and potentially game changing plays, but was slightly off in his timing resulting in a pass breakup rather than an interception. With Jones finally settling into a single position at free safety, he will be able to capture the nuances of the position, and most aptly unleash his combination of football intelligence and athleticism to make the type of plays he showed himself to be capable of in 2015.
Benson Mayowa - In free agency, the Cowboys biggest move in hopes to improve the pass rush was signing restricted free agent Mayowa to an offer sheet, which the Oakland Raiders decided not to match. Mayowa has played a limited number of snaps in career, which of course has limited his opportunity to produce, but he did show flashes in the games which he was on the field for significant snaps. It's not likely that we see Mayowa turn into the type of double-digit sack producer that this team really needs, but we have seen Rod Marinelli coax six or more sacks out of virtually unknown rushers before, and I wouldn't be surprised if that was what we saw from Mayowa in 2016. Playing lots of right defensive end until Randy Gregory returns, and working in as a situational type of rusher once Gregory returns from suspension.
There are other players who Cowboy fans can hope would be able to make more big plays, especially anyone at the cornerback position. But these three each have a combination of opportunity and ability that will put them in position to be difference makers in the most important way imaginable.