When the Dallas Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott instead of Jalen Ramsey in the 2016 NFL Draft, it was made clear that the team's focus was to have a style similar to ground-and-pound football. In 2014, the Cowboys' defense improved significantly in comparison to a few seasons prior. A large reason because of that was the efficiency of the Cowboys' offense and how it controlled each game on the way to 12 victories. Seeing how that method helped Tony Romo enjoy his most successful season ever and the Cowboys enjoyed a season where they were a true contenders in the NFC, the goal now is to pick up right where the team left off in the 2014 playoffs and advance further.
They do have a problem on defense. Four games of the regular season may seem like nothing, and it really is nothing, in any other sport, but it is a quarter of the NFL regular season. In that span, the Cowboys will be without the production and impact of Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, the team's best pass-rushing options. In addition linebacker Rolando McClain is suspended for ten games, leaving a big question mark at the Mike linebacker position. All three players are vital parts of this defense. Dallas' offense is going to be one of the best in football, but they won't be able to score on every possession. The Cowboys are going to have to rely on their defense at times and without these three aforementioned players, getting a consistent impact may be difficult.
It seems like it's been forever now that media critics and NFL followers have ridiculed the Cowboys for their lack of talent across the defensive line. But in that time, the Cowboys have yet to make a big move. There were some ideas about free agent players like Olivier Vernon and Mario Williams, but the Cowboys stuck to their plan, choosing to develop their younger players rather than dishing out a ton of money for an aging veteran who will make more than he should because of the value of the market.
Jumping to conclusions about this team would be unfair. The Cowboy have done a really nice job of late at adding talent and depth in the right spots. Dallas' current roster is about as competitive as I can remember in the past 10 years. A large reason because of that has been because of the scouting department and what guys like Stephen Jones and Will McClay have done to truly revamp this team and trend them in the right direction.
As the season approaches, players like Benson Mayowa, Ryan Russell, and Jack Crawford will raise their profile among Cowboys fans. These, among a few others, are the players that will be rushing the passer for the majority of the first four games. While each player is unproven in the NFL, each player has the potential to do some nice things for the Cowboys.
Defensive line coach Leon Lett said that the team had been following Mayowa since the Seattle Seahawks drafted him. That was 2013. He's yet to find his home in the NFL, but the Cowboys love what he could become. Dallas has been SPARQ freaks over the past few years and Mayowa is no exception of that. If he can take advantage of the coaching of Rod Marinelli and Lett, Dallas may have found something at a ridiculously inexpensive cost.
If it weren't for injury last year, we would've probably seen a little bit about Russell. Talking about SPARQ freaks, Russell was the best athlete from his defensive line draft class. He's a unique project, but he'll be able to be a force if he develops more strength and play awareness. Going through a second training camp will be huge for him.
An expanded role for Crawford could finally allow him to make some decent money after the 2016 season, even though it could be elsewhere across the league. Crawford has worked really hard over the past two years to improve his conditioning to go along with his physical nature, and it led to him being a nice situational pass-rusher last year.
The Cowboys are not going to have a defense on the same level as dominant defenses of the past, but it is still one that has talent and potential on it. The 2016 season will likely depend on just how good its offense is, and it's expected to be on of the best. But they'll need their defense, too. And they'll need a pass rush, and the team is hoping that some combination of Mayowa, Russell and Crawford can have a breakout season.
Who do you have your money on as the Cowboys surprise breakout pass rusher this season?