The hits keep on coming for the Dallas Cowboys defense, and not at all in a good way. Benson Mayowa has had a minor surgery. DeMarcus Lawrence has had his suspension upheld. Maliek Collins suffered a foot injury. Rolando McClain is out ten games for a suspension of his own. It appears there’s no relief in sight.
So it becomes more important than ever for Dallas to find replacements, particularly along the defensive line. At the moment, the guy taking first team reps for injured and suspended SDE Lawrence is 2015 fifth-round pick Ryan Russell. That doesn’t sound very inspiring. When you then consider that he fell behind Ben Gardner and Lavar Edwards on the depth chart during pre-season last year and was only active for one game in 2015, your spider senses are likely telling you this isn’t the guy you want your hopes riding on come opening day.
Nonetheless, Edwards and Gardner are both off the team and Russell is still here... and the de facto starter. So what is Russell’s story?
Like 2016 4th round pick Charles Tapper, Ryan Russell is a good-sized, fairly athletic 4-3 DE who played out of position in college as a 3-4 DE. Russell is a little longer and leaner (6’5", 267 lb vs 6’3", 271 lb) and a tick slower in the 40 yd dash (a still-very-respectable 4.75 vs an eye-popping 4.59), but other than that they have similar measurables. Tapper produced more, but also played for a much better defense at Oklahoma, while Russell’s Purdue Boilermakers suffered even more in his absence last year. Russell flashed early in preseason, but took a back seat to other players as pre-season went on. Yet while those players moved on and other players moved in, Russell remained on the team, although usually a game day inactive. An abdominal strain finally landed him on IR to make room to bring Chaz Green on the roster.
So there’s not a lot of NFL game film on Russell, but I was able to pull some snaps from his preseason games. Unfortunately, there’s no all-22 available for preseason, so the .gifs to follow are not from ideal angles. He played all four games, splitting time between SDE and 3 tech. The main thing I saw was a a good combination of athleticism, heads-up play, and a high-motor pursuit. There’s something to work with here, but it should be borne in mind that these are preseason snaps against 2nd-3rd team players.
His awareness and athleticism showed a couple of times when he read a TE trying to sneak out into the flat on a bootleg. Here he recognizes it from the SDE position as he sees how TE Kyle Miller in front of him releases out, instead of upfield.
In this play, more impressively, he makes the same read and coverage from the 3-tech spot on the defensive right after standing up a double team.
Of course his ability to handle running plays will be important on the strong side. By and large, he did well sealing the edge and help inside would’ve made Dallas much more effective in pre-season against the run. Unfortunately, he had Jasper Brinkley behind him for much of his playing time. Here Russell pushes through a double team to disrupt the play, then chases it down for a tackle after Brinkley fails to bring Branden Oliver down. As an aside, the good contain by Byron Jones is essential to this play.
On this play he makes a nice read and shows some athleticism getting to the outside of the run from the 3-tech spot, but an awkward reach as the RB tries to cut back inside leads to a face mask penalty. He made a nice play here, just an unfortunate flail at the end.
Stopping the run is nice, but the title of the series is "whence comes pressure". What we really want to know is, can the guy get upfield? Russell can, though he lacks finish at times.
Here is a nice power rush from inside. The TV guys did a slow motion replay so we get a good look at his pocket-collapsing strength. Edwards gets the sack from SDE, but Russell’s pressure is what forces the QB to pull the ball down. It’s worth noting that Randy Gregory also had excellent pressure. Gregory showed up a lot in these games and it continues to reinforce my belief that he’s going to be an outstanding player if he can get his business in order.
I had to include this one, though I don’t really know that Russell had much to do with it. The San Francisco announcers had just finished talking up this right tackle as a really good player when he literally tripped over himself trying to keep up with Russell’s speed rush. Now, I don’t presume that Russell can do this at will to other RTs, but he does a good job of blocking the passing lane and then getting Blaine Gabbert to the ground.
We’ll wrap up the .gifs with another nice speed rush, not against air this time.
Russell gets a hit on QB Tom Savage (who started the game for Houston) and had Terrell McClain or Ken Bishop managed any push against the single blocking they both faced, Savage would not have been able to step up and dump the ball to his RB.
All in all, not a bad showing for a 5th round rookie in preseason, and it’s easy to see why the Cowboys kept him around to develop. It’s disappointing that he was not able to make the active roster in 2015, but we will have to wait till this preseason to see how the young man has developed. I know we’re all looking forward to the action.