Once again, we're in a Dallas Cowboys offseason where the majority of the questions surrounding the team lay squarely on the defense's shoulders. As an optimist, I tend to think that they can be okay as long as the offense sustains drives and the defense is able to force turnovers, unlike last season where they only took away the ball 11 times, the worst in franchise history. The turnover situation could work itself out as it's more of a luck of the draw type of thing. Maybe they won't be as good as 2014 where they ranked second in the league at 31 takeaways, but the middle of the pack isn't too much to ask for.
With that said, this article isn't about turnovers, that one was written many moons ago. Is it fair to question the Cowboys' commitment to defense? We all know that this is an offensive powered team behind their menacing offensive line and running game. However, have they come close to committing the same resources as they have on offense? They have added players to their defensive unit but have they added true talent? Do they possibly bargain a little too much when it comes to the defense?
In Rod We Trust (Too Much)
Marinelli is one of the best defensive line coaches in the history of the NFL, but do they trust in his abilities to coach too much? It makes you wonder if he doesn't stand up enough to make the case for the pass rush. The truth is that the Cowboys' pass rush has been awful since they made the switch the 4-3 and hasn't seen much improvement at all. In the last three seasons, this is what the ranks of Marinelli's defenses have put forth:
|Season||Run Defense||Pass Defense||Sacks|
|2013||27th||30th||25th (34 sacks)|
|2014||8th||26th||28th (28 sacks)|
|2015||22nd||5th||25th (31 sacks)|
In that time they have lost key contributors like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. The latter being the last Cowboy to produce double-digit sacks (11 in 2013). They've added pieces like DeMarcus Lawrence (2nd round '14), Randy Gregory (2nd round '15), both players set to be suspended for the first four games of the season. They've seen Marinelli throughout his career make chicken salad out of chicken excrement, but shouldn't they surround him with some more defensive line talent, if they plan to take the next step? Say what you want about sacks not being the whole story, but the NFL has moved into a passing league and you have to put pressure on the quarterback. It just feels that the Cowboys' front office may put too much pressure on Marinelli, without giving him enough to work with. That leads to the next point.
Free Agency/ Draft Philosophy
Pass rushers get paid and the Cowboys have simply made a statement that they do not believe in the free agency process. Trust that I'm nowhere near saying they should have paid through the nose for any free agent defensive lineman, but they could have made a move for someone like Robert Ayers, Charles Johnson, Derrick Shelby, or even Mario Williams was affordable. They like their guys, we get it, but their most proven pass rusher is in his third-year and faced the least amount of double-teams as any left end in the league and that was according to his own defensive coordinator.
Most of us were pretty much on board with the Ezekiel Elliott pick, though there are still some out there loaded for argument. We get it when Marinelli tells us that he felt that was as good a pick for the defense as it was for the offense. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say and I certainly am not advocating against what they have built offensively as they have become the envy of the league along the offensive line. Still, this season they waited until the third round to even begin addressing their biggest need; defensive line help. But it wasn't until the fourth round that they picked up a defensive end, Charles Tapper. The hope is that he proves to be ready to go early, still, he's a rookie.
Since Marinelli has been the DC, the Cowboys have drafted only one defensive player in the first round and that's Byron Jones. If he becomes the free safety of the future that would be stellar, but that leaky pass rush still looms large in terms of anyone developing into what they can be. The only reason I can't severely knock their entire approach to this year's draft was the fact that they seemingly weren't that impressed with the top rushers like Joey Bosa. When it came to their favorite spot to take a defensive end, the second round, they were out of the guys they liked.
The average age of the Dallas Cowboys' entire defensive line in 24.46 years. That's very young and the defense as a whole would only have an average age of 26.54. Heck, the team in itself is the 10th-youngest team in the league at 26.93. When Stephen Jones stated that it was a 'young man's game', he wasn't kidding in the least. They have certainly committed to the youth of the defensive line where guys like Cedric Thornton and Jack Crawford are the oldest at 28 and 27 respectively. If you look at the entire depth chart of defensive linemen, you'll find that the average years in the NFL between all 15 is 2.6 years. That's a pretty staggeringly low number.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the lack of sustained success of this defensive line has something to do with the fact that this line is GREEN. Other than Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford, nobody has seen more than four years in the NFL. They certainly seem to believe that the guys they currently have are better for the team moving forward than bringing in any sort of stop-gap at a position.
For us, we certainly hope it means that good results will come from all these young acquisitions. I mean, it's not very often you see a team go after a restricted free agent like Benson Mayowa unless they have some confidence in the returns. The reality though is that a lot of these guys are still figuring out where they fit in the NFL and only one, Randy Gregory, was ever considered to be a first-round talent.
The Cowboys feel as though they have defensive pieces to build around. Those pieces, in my mind, would be Orlando Scandrick (29), Sean Lee (29), Byron Jones (23), Tyrone Crawford (26), Cedric Thornton (28). They also believe they have building blocks in Gregory, Lawrence, Tapper, and Collins. They have some stop-gaps too in Barry Church, Brandon Carr, and even Rolando McClain. The problem is that so much is unknown about the defense and instead of adding answers, they added more questions.
It's all fair and good to want to return to the offensive juggernaut they were in 2014, but remember that the good quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers picked this team apart, on one leg mind you. So, it's likely that until they spend even higher resources on this deficiency, they may just be in the same boat. If you can't put pressure on the quarterback, you can't efficiently play defense, and if you can't do that, you better hope that your offense can blow people out. Everything that we've seen the Cowboys do this offseason points to the team looking high and low for pass rushers again in the offseason to come.
Are they committed to fixing this pass rush? Perhaps they are with all the youth they've brought in, but it's the quality of these players that is in question.