There’s a lot of criticism right now regarding the Dallas front office not doing enough to address the pass rush. From a strict technical perspective, that is absolutely true. The Dallas Cowboys pass rush is a thing of hope and speculation, with almost no proven ability. Their two best pressure players are easily DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. One is suspended four games and the other is coming off his career best season with five sacks. That, on the surface, hardly seems inspiring, and looking deeper only salves things so much.
Unlike fellow suspendee Randy Gregory, Lawrence’s suspension is for PEDs and appears to be a legitimate one-time thing. Crawford was severely limited by an early shoulder injury last year and yet still managed a career high in sacks and a team high in pressures. Nonetheless, neither of them is what anyone would consider "proven", despite some legitimately high hopes for both of them based on what we have seen on tape.
Behind that are journeymen Banson Mayowa and Jack Crawford (both ex-Raiders, oddly) and then young, practice squad eligible whippersnappers Ryan Russell and David Irving, along with rookie Charles Tapper and the George Selvie-like Mike McAdoo, who has bounced around the NFL for five years without ever catching on. Lots of hope and, to be fair, lots of talent, but almost no experience, with everyone from Russell on combining for less than one full NFL season of active games between them.
But what could the Cowboys have done in the last three years to shore up their defensive line?
In 2014 they traded their second- and third-round picks to move up and get pass rush specialist Lawrence as well as drafting seventh-rounder Ben Gardner and bringing in career journeyman Jeremy Mincey. In 2015 they again used a second-round pick on a consensus top-five talent in Gregory, as well as a fifth-rounder bet on Russell. Furthermore, they took a major gamble in signing a top producer at the position in Greg Hardy. In 2016 they again took a risk on a physically talented (near ideal, in fact) 3-4 defensive end in Tapper. What else could they have reasonably done in that time? And, more importantly, what else can the do now?
Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is "not a whole lot". There are some big, overpriced names that have hit free agency, but the Cowboys made the biggest possible free agent splash in signing Hardy and that did not work out. Draft-wise they really haven’t passed up a chance to get a good pass rusher. They did pass on Noah Spence, but they already have a much more talented player with drug troubles in Gregory. To bad mouth the Gregory pick as a bad risk and complain about not taking Spence is shaky gorund. Beyond that, Dallas has not had the opportunity to take a legitimate pass rushing prospect and passed. You could argue, in hindsight, that they could’ve taken Frank Clarke instead of Gregory, but Clarke has his own red flags and Dallas was already dealing with backlash from the Greg Hardy signing. All in all, there’s not a lot more this team could’ve done than go with who they did.
"But," says the naysayer, "there’s no reason for them not to sign Dwight Freeney."
Well, there is. A lot, actually. Consider the following. He cost the Arizona Cardinals $970,000 last year, and his cap hit was likely about half that due to the way veteran players are discounted. He led the team in sacks with eight. He’s a proven veteran with a career sack count in the same range as Simeon Rice and Clyde Simmons. The Cardinals have only one proven player behind him, having traded with New England for Chandler Jones prior to the draft (which, BTW, is something I’d like to have seen Dallas do with Ron Leary, but I’m guessing Dallas didn’t want to give up the draft pick that came with the deal). Apart from him, the Cardinals’ outside pass rush looks like Dallas’, or perhaps worse.
And the Cardinals didn’t resign Freeney. Let that sink in a bit.
Besides, there are other names out there if you want an aging vet. Hardy is still available. Justin Tuck is sitting out there. As are Calvin Pace, Kroy Biermann, Jason Babin, Lamarr Woodley, and Larry English. My guess is that, if the Cowboys get truly desperate, they would go with someone they know, like Mincey or Selvie, both of whom are available.
But I think Dallas defensive ends four deep, even with the suspension, are better than Mincey or Selvie, who, let’s remember, both started on this team two years ago. And I think Mincey or Selvie are as good, if not better, options than the aging, non-producing big names above. And yes, Freeney is a non-producer. He had eight sacks last year, but in the two years before that combined for four sacks and 11 tackles, total. Furthermore, he only had nine tackles total last season.
We have no proven players at defensive end for the first four games. But consider the Dallas defensive end rotation in 2014. Starters George Selvie and Jeremy Mincey. Backups were post-microfracture Anthony Spencer, Lavar Edwards, rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, and Jack Crawford. Dallas could every put single one of those players on this team, and indeed, does have a couple of them. Yet the rest are not even in camp for an audition.
I submit to you that, while the line is not as improved as we would like, it is, in fact, much-improved over the one that got this team to the playoffs two years ago. And of course, everyone keeps ignoring Gregory and Lawrence in these discussions. Gregory’s situation looks bad, but he’s not out of the league yet and his on the field play as a rookie was impressive. Lawrence has shown himself to be a force on the line both as a pass rusher and against the run. Assuming Gregory is done and Lawrence is done with suspensions (what I think the most likely scenario) Dallas’s pass rush for the next few years should include a couple of legitimately threatening players in Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. If any of the young guns develops (I still think Tapper may be the gem out of all of them), this pass rush will be quite stout. It may even, as Crawford and Russell have both indicated, "shock the world".