One thing you have to admit about the 2016 draft for the Dallas Cowboys: It wasn't dull. From going against the current by using the fourth-overall pick to take a running back, to grabbing an injured but incredibly talented linebacker for the future, to finally taking a quarterback after years of spurning the position in the draft, to a flyer on a huge but athletic basketball player, it had excitement, shock, and genuine "what the . . ." moments. The reviews have not been all that great from some, despite Dallas still being the favorite to win the NFC East (at least at the moment). Oddsmakers in Vegas have taken an increasingly more skeptical view of the team's chances to win it all as things have played out. The main issue seems to be the failure of the team to place what is seen as the biggest problem as the first priority. The defense, specifically the pass rush, was not addressed as aggressively in either free agency or the draft as many analysts think it should have been.
The offense was seen as something that would literally heal itself from the Great Debacle of 2015. The return of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant to full health would address the main problem from last year, a justifiable stance. But the impotent pass rush and lack of takeaways were the other big problems the Cowboys faced last year, and there is a strong belief that the team is putting too much emphasis on offensive production and not enough on getting better when the other team has the ball. The drafting of Ezekiel Elliott in the first and basically using the second-round selection of Jaylon Smith as an investment in the future just increased these concerns. The feeling is that even with a return to the offensive formula that led to a good deal of success in 2014 is not going to be enough, even if it does hold great promise to be even more effective now.
But how much did the team actually do to get better defensively? Dallas did not get aggressive on defense, sticking with their cautious approach to free agency and strong preference for going BPA in the draft, particularly in the first couple of rounds. They preferred patience, something that many in both the media and fan base are not as comfortable with.
Now, as Landon McCool and Joey Ickes have observed in one of the latest in their series of excellent podcasts, we finally are able to look at the approach as a whole. While there is still a question about how successful they were in how they did things, we are just now able to put all the pieces in context. A final verdict cannot be rendered until the season plays out, but when you get your arms around it all, there may be some real hope for a defense that can hold up its end of the bargain this year.
First, the return of some healthy veterans may have an impact almost as significant as for the offense. The big name is Orlando Scandrick, who is arguably the best cornerback currently on the roster and a real leader on the field. He missed all of last season. Getting him back is a major plus. Less obvious is getting a fully operational Tyrone Crawford. He played most of 2015 with only one good shoulder. And like Scandrick, he may be the best player the team has in his position group, the defensive line. Lost in things was the injury that put Terrell McClain on IR after the first game. His contributions are less obvious, and there is a concern about his ability to stay on the field given his history. But he was the best 1-tech DT the team had to open the season, and his loss had a bigger impact than many realize.
As mentioned, the Cowboys avoided big splashes in both free agency and the draft when it came to upgrading the defensive line. Free agency was not only something the team has not been using for high-impact but high-cost signings much of late, there also has to have been an inhibiting effect from the one exception they made in 2015, Greg Hardy. The failure of that experiment was something they seem to have taken as a cautionary tale. Dallas waited for things to come to them this year. In the draft, they didn't see a legitimate first-round option in Joey Bosa, who was taken off the board by San Diego at three anyway. They were going to take a pass rusher in the second round, according to multiple sources, but saw their two options, Emmanuel Ogbah and Kevin Dodd, also go before they got a chance at them. They took a bit of a calculated risk in waiting until the fourth round to try again, picking up Charles Tapper.
But with the third round selection of Maliek Collins and the signings of free agents Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa, they did get some quantity, even if the quality was not as high as some would like. The two free agents and the two mid-round draftees are almost certain to make the roster. Dallas will likely carry nine or ten defensive linemen on the 53-man roster, so that means that 40% of the defensive line corps will be new players this year. That is a lot of new bodies to apply to the problem. And as the Cowboys have tended to prefer, all are good athletically. This is the sort of raw material Rod Marinelli likes to work with. Just maybe he can manufacture more pass rush out of this, even with the suspensions faced by DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory to start the season.
So there may be hope for the defense to improve this year from its dismal performance in 2015. Will that be enough to get back to the top of the NFC East where they were in 2014? They did fall off tremendously last year, right?
Do you realize the Cowboys gave up just 22 points more last year than in 2014? Or 1.375 more per game. https://t.co/KIXQq5J4Pm— Mickey Spagnola (@Spags52) May 5, 2016
Huh. Maybe when you factor in how absolutely bad Dallas was in sustaining drives and turning the ball over in Romo's absence, that defense last year was not all that far from what the team needed them to be. Clearly, part of the rationale behind the Elliott pick was to make sure that the team could control the ball and run the clock, taking pressure off the defense. And if nothing else, we can always look for some progression to the mean, which predicts that both sacks and takeaways should trend up this year just because that is how things usually work out. Add in that Morris Claiborne had his best season to date in 2015, he and Brandon Carr are both in contract years, and Byron Jones is now able to focus on playing free safety after a good rookie year moving all over the secondary, and the back end of the defense may be better as well.
None of this proves that the doubters are wrong. The various moves have to prove out when the games count. But there is at least some reason to have hope that the approach taken this offseason will lead to a more effective defense.
Optimism or pessimism is up to you. We won't know which is correct until the team takes the field. But this is the time for optimism throughout the NFL. And there are some real reasons for it in Dallas this year.