In the 2017 offseason, the priority for the Dallas Cowboys seems clear. They need to improve the defense. With a seemingly perennial problem rushing the passer and four defensive backs going into free agency, there is plenty of room for improvement. Offensively, the team has done an extremely good job on the other side of the ball, assembling what is considered the best offensive line in the NFL and then hitting a couple of real home runs in the 2016 draft in Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott. Unfortunately, the defense has suffered from obvious neglect in recent years.
Except the problem has clearly NOT been neglect. Consider this:
Draft pick allocation over the past 5 years... pic.twitter.com/oBTkRkR1fW— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) February 7, 2017
Look at that line for Dallas. Over the past five years, the Cowboys have used 25 of their 40 draft picks for defense, or 62.5% of their total picks. And that includes five defensive ends. While they have been a bit heavy on offense in the first round (three of the last five picks), the team has still been investing the bulk of their draft capital on the defensive side of the ball .
Similarly, the Cowboys have been using free agency more for defensive players than for offense. The biggest free agent acquisition during the five years covered in that draft chart was Brandon Carr. The team has also signed players like Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, and Benson Mayowa. Just as with the draft, Dallas has been focusing more of its free agency moves on the defensive side of the ball.
The problem hasn’t been the level of effort. It has been the lack of success.
Great success with the offense has masked the failures on defense to a great degree. Consider this additional chart on draft picks, again covering the past five years.
Number of picks over that span that failed to play (or have yet to) an NFL game... pic.twitter.com/AynQodr6eQ— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) February 8, 2017
That’s right. The Cowboys lead the league in drafted players who have yet to see a down on the field. Having a quarter of your picks over that period not play is, well, terrible. That does include four players from 2016, Jaylon Smith, Charles Tapper, Darius Jackson, and Rico Gathers, all of whom will likely see playing time soon. It still reflects a real failure to get return on your investment, even if all four of those players do eventually contribute - and Jackson will be doing it with the Cleveland Browns, it appears.
Smith is generating a lot of excitement as he continues to show real progress in recovering from the knee injury that kept him off the field, but he also represents another factor that has hurt the Cowboys. They have a tendency to take risks on players, and most of those have been on defense. Smith, Hardy, Rolando McClain, Randy Gregory and others came to the team with either injury questions or character concerns, and the failure rate for them (so far) is disturbing. Then there is the luck factor, which is the only way to look at what happened with Tapper. For various reasons, many players the Cowboys have taken a risk on have not panned out. Some may still make an impact, but so far, things are just not good. It is time for the team to seriously rethink its quest to find those true bargains in the draft and free agency by gambling on players with question marks, and start focusing on players with better odds of making it.
This is where the Cowboys have to be better in 2017. They need to get players who can come in and help now, not later. Last year they did that with Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown, and hopefully that is the beginning of a trend. This year’s draft class is seen as deep, particularly at EDGE rusher and cornerback, and both of those are areas where the Cowboys can certainly use good players. Now the staff needs to do its homework and get it right.
Smith and Tapper also represent some real hope to provide production after “redshirt” rookie years. And Terrell McClain and Mayowa both had fairly good seasons in 2016, so free agency was not a complete bust. But Dallas needs more than just solid, unspectacular players, especially rushing the passer. They need at least one real quarterback hunter who can get home with a pass rush. Rookies are not known for making a big impact in their first year, but the Cowboys need someone who can provide real pressure over the next five or more years.
The only real solution is to have more hits and fewer misses when Dallas acquires new defensive players. The way they have built the offense offers hope they can get it right. Now they just have to follow through.