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Early Cowboys' Camp Reports Giving Reason For Hope On The Defensive Line

Perhaps the biggest question marks surrounding the 2016 Dallas Cowboys' going into the start of training camp surrounded around the defensive line, have any of those questions been answered to this point?

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The 2016 Dallas Cowboys are a team constructed around an explosive offense, designed to build leads early in games and then hold on to that lead by controlling the ball. On a team like that, the most important tasks for the defensive side of the ball are: a) generate takeaways, and b) rush the passer.

Many data analyses have shown that turnover generation is largely random. But anyone who pays attention to the way defenses practice will know that every bit of those practices has an element designed to encourage the habits that do result in increased takeaway opportunities, with tangible results for the Cowboys shown as recently as 2014. Still, we won't focus on this aspect in this article.

However, over the last few years, and really most of this century outside of a few years in the prime of DeMarcus Ware's career, the Cowboys have not been very good at generating consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. At times it has been a result of a lack of talent, and others it's been due to scheme issues, but as an organization they have failed to generate production from their defensive front in terms sacking opposing quarterbacks.

The team has, at various times, including following the heartbreaking loss to the Green Bay Packers in the 2014 playoffs, felt that they needed more from the pass rush to meet their goals. But throughout the 2016 offseason, their actions seemed to show that they felt as though they had enough talent along the front to get production and win. These actions, or more lack-there-of, have led to the wringing of many hands among fans and analyst in Cowboys Nation.

Now that we have a week worth of practice reports, Twitter posts, and "Training Camp Live" feeds to dig through, are there any early signs that may point to hope along the line? It certainly seems that there are, as coaches Rod Marinelli and Leon Lett have begun to mold the raw pieces of clay they have been given.

David Irving: As a player signed by the Cowboys away from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad shortly after the end of training camp, Irving played a role in the Cowboys rotation in 2015, and showed promise, but lacked high-level production. Like many among the Cowboys' Rushmen, Irving has a very impressive physical profile, and according to observers, has begun to translate those measurables to the field in the team and one-on-one periods. Playing primarily as a left defensive end, Irving has regularly been too much for the Cowboys' right tackles to handle, displaying impressive ability to bend, and convert speed to power, using his remarkable length to control and occasionally dominate his opponents creating havoc in the backfield. If Irving can create some consistency in his technique, while developing the one-handed "long arm" move he's been working on a bit, there's no reason to believe he can't be a guy who can be counted on to produce in 2016.

Ryan Russell: Few players were more maligned in the 2015 training camp, and few on the 2015 roster had a smaller impact than the rookie from Purdue. But going into his second year, I'm not sure many have been more praised for their development over the 2016 offseason than Russell. Early in camp Russell has played mostly right defensive end with the first defense, which means he has drawn the  assignment of facing off with Tyron Smith in most drills. While observers confirm that he has given Smith some good work exhibiting improved get-off and burst, he hasn't been able to get the better of Smith all that often, However, when he's gotten the opportunity to go against someone besides the All-Pro, Russell has been able to be a disruptive player in the early practices. He has shown a nifty spin move, and will need to develop a way to capture the outside edge on an offensive tackle, whether pure speed or otherwise, in order to maximize the effectiveness of that spin and position him to be the most productive he can be at this point. (Reminder, the tackle he beats so handily in the video below, has started 27 NFL games.)

DeMarcus Lawrence: Coming off of an eight sack season in 2015 in which he faced more single blocks than any defensive end in the NFL, recovering from back surgery, and looking in the face of a 4-game suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy, Lawrence went from a player that fans could look to with hope of the next lead-dog along the defensive front, to just another question mark in a group full of them. However, early camp returns are all pointing extremely positive, whether it's taking accountability for his offseason misstep, or the way he's played like he's on a mission. He like Russell has developed a spin move, however, with Lawrence's proven ability to capture the edge with speed and/or power, the spin will act as more of a counter than a primary move, only increasing the number of tools in Lawrence's belt as he attempts to breakdown offensive tackles. It is no doubt a shame that Lawrence will have to wait four extra weeks to turn his early camp success into regular season production, but to this point, it appears he could be up to the challenge of being the team's alpha-dog rusher after all, and if that's the case, that will mean good things for everyone.

These are three big reasons to start to feel some positive vibes about the Cowboys pass rush, and we haven't even addressed the good things from Cedric Thornton and Terrell McClain disrupting inside, or unsung defensive ends like Mike McAdoo who have shown well, and minor injuries have kept us from seeing anything from Tyrone Crawford or Benson Mayowa to this point. So while much development remains between now and the Cowboys putting a dangerous pass rush on the field in September and beyond, everything to this point have been steps in the right direction, ready to be built upon.

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