This Cowboys’ defense in 2016 wasn’t supposed to be even close to successful. After all, they started with the news of suspensions to their two highest-rated pass rushers. The front office’s idea of upgrading the defense in free agency was bringing on two rotational players in Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa. In their defense (pun intended), Mayowa actually led the team in sacks with six after a late-season surge. The Cowboys’ didn’t even address their biggest weakness until the third and fourth rounds when they selected Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper (IR for the season).
Still, with almost every single card being dealt against them, the Cowboys managed to be the 14th-ranked defense when the dust was settled. That includes the 1st-ranked rushing defense that didn’t allow a single 100-yard rusher all year. Behind fantastic seasons from Sean Lee and David Irving, the Cowboys’ played their hearts out and their moniker became the team that was going to try harder than anyone else. It worked for the most part until they were picked apart in the Divisional Round yet again by that pesky Aaron Rodgers.
It showed that as good as this defense played, they had plenty of shortcomings. When they went up against a “great” quarterback, their lack of true talent showed up big time. Despite the Cowboys cruising to a 13-3 record, they were jettisoned once again as it became clear that Dallas needs to put the “D” back in Dallas Cowboys. So how do they go about doing that? It’s pretty simple, they need to add more talent, not try-hards.
For as much respect as Rod Marinelli has earned and deserved, there is a growing suspicion that he doesn’t jump on the table for anyone. At times, he’s been criticized for not being a loud enough voice in the process. Bryan Broaddus, Nick Eatman, and David Helman of the team website have mentioned this in the past through various radio productions. They have questioned the legendary defensive mind’s acquisition process on many occasions.
Throughout the drafts that he has been a part of, the highest-rated defensive players that he’s added are safety Byron Jones (27th overall), DeMarcus Lawrence (34th overall) and Randy Gregory (played in 14 of 32 games due to suspensions). Marinelli has always been of the mindset, “we’re going to coach them up.” In many cases, he’s earned that right as one of the NFL’s best defensive minds to ever coach. That being said, his defenses in Chicago and Tampa weren’t just made up of try-hard players. Guys like Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch come to mind. All of those guys were taken in the Top-100 players in their respective drafts.
At some point, the Cowboys are going to have to start upgrading the talent levels of their defensive players if they hope to truly contend for championships. That doesn’t mean they have to be big spenders in free agency as their approach seems a lot sounder than some teams. Free agency is always a hit or miss type of way and this team knows all too well about spending big money and getting little in return.
This front office prefers to do most of their improvement via the NFL Draft and that’s why this year is very important to their long-term success. This has been widely known as a deep draft at edge rusher and cornerback, which are arguably the two biggest needs for this organization.
Even though they are picking towards the end of each round, this draft is said to stretch a long mile and that’s music to the ears of a team needing some talent on defense. Will McClay has stated that the organization will not be dictated to by any one position. We’ve seen that this front office usually does stick to taking the best players available. In fact, they usually like to get someone who is the best at his position if possible. That’s truly a commendable way to approach the draft and it also keeps them from making desperate picks which in turn lowers the possibility of a reach.
This front office has earned trust by making those types of sound decisions and it’s the reason why they’ve been able to find success. The 2016 Dallas Cowboys could easily be the 1991 Dallas Cowboys. They were downright dominant at times and you sense that something was building. Both teams had similar issues creating pressure on opposing offenses and had troubles getting teams off the field on third downs. That 1991 team upgraded their defense in the offseason and marched to their first Super Bowl in 15 years.
The Cowboys as currently constructed are in a similar boat though it may not happen overnight like that 1991 team that didn’t have to worry about the salary cap. That doesn’t mean that the Cowboys can’t make themselves championship contenders by making a few more sound decisions. What that’s going to take though is a commitment to taking talent over try-hard players.
The front office helped Rod Marinelli in a huge way when they selected Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth-overall pick. It pretty much guaranteed that his defense would spend way less time on the field and that he would be able to keep guys fresh, and it worked. However, it’s now high time that they start bringing in the serious defensive capital to even out what they have on the offensive side of the ball.
When the Cowboys are going through their various scouting meetings, scouring over reports and tape of all these players, it’s important for Marinelli to be a huge presence. That’s not to say that he isn’t but now he needs to be more decisive and more prominent in the discussion than ever. It’s great to build your defense around guys that are willing to bring every ounce of effort they have but at the end of the day, talent is very much just as important and ultimately sets the ceiling. Dallas needs to focus on building their defense with a solid blend of both and if they do; this team will have no limits to what they can accomplish in the near future.