Who do we mean by “the Cowboys’ underachievers”? It’s six guys on the Cowboys defensive line who all need to play a lot better than they did in 2016.
Demarcus Lawrence, not Taco Charlton, was supposed to be the first major piece to fix the Cowboys defensive line and pass rush. The Cowboys traded their second- and third-round picks to Washington to move up to the top of the second round where they could grab Lawrence, the last edge rusher they coveted in the draft. Unfortunately, he’s been an underachiever ever since.
His first year, 2014, he suffered an injury in training camp and missed half the year, but came on to make an impact in the Cowboy’s first playoff game with a sack and forced fumble late in the game (which he proceeded to fumble himself), and then another sack to ice the game.
In 2015, he was moved to left defensive end to play opposite Greg Hardy. With mostly single players to beat, he ratcheted up to eight sacks and 7 AV to lead the defensive line.
But then in 2016, he was suspended the first four games for substance abuse, and ended up missing three more with back issues he had hoped to clear up with offseason surgery. He got in only 329 snaps, had one sack, and finished with 2 AV.
This is not the player the Cowboys expected when they invested two high draft picks on him. He’s in a contract year. Can he stay healthy and bring pressure from one edge this year? The Cowboys are going to need him to play a critical role if they want to up their pass rush.
How can David Irving be an “underachiever”? After all, he had a monster game in the regular season against the Green Bay Packers when he won defensive player of the week. On only 19 snaps, he had a sack, forced three fumbles, recovering one, blocked a pass, had a tackle for no gain, and an assist. He also dominated the ending of the Tampa Bay win by sacking Jameis Winston twice with the Cowboys protecting a six-point lead.
The problem is that Irving didn’t turn in these games every week. He got thrown out of the Browns game three minutes in for fighting with one of Cleveland’s linemen. He only played in 179 snaps through the first nine games of the year, for 20 snaps a game, but got 310 snaps in the last seven, for 44 snaps/game. He ended up with 3 AV, which tied him with Mo Claiborne and Damien Wilson.
Will David Irving step up this year and be a difference maker week in and week out? The Cowboys lost Jack Crawford’s 561 snaps, and Terrell McClain’s 471 snaps, so there is opportunity for Irving to push his way to the front of the snap line. Plus, he can play inside or out. The question is, will he become a force every week?
Cedric Thornton earned the biggest free agent contract the Cowboys have doled out over the last two years - four years, $17 million, with a $5 million signing bonus. It carries a cap hit of $4.25 million this year, but a dead cap hit of $6.75 million if he were cut, so despite his poor performance last year, he’s a lock to stay this year.
Thornton was expected to take over from Nick Hayden at 1-technique, even though he’d played defensive end in Philadelphia’s 3-4 defense next to Fletcher Cox. Dallas also signed him because Terrell McClain hadn’t been able to stay healthy his first two years in Dallas, and would be a free agent at the end of 2016. The problem was that Thornton was not nearly as good as McClain last year, who stayed healthy for a change. Thornton ended up with only 277 snaps, eighth among defensive linemen, and only 2 AV, after recording seasons of 8, 8, and 5 AV in Philly.
Is there any hope for Thornton this year? He has only Stephen Paea and two seventh-round defensive tackles to beat out. Can he regain the form that caused Dallas to invest in him?
Benson Mayowa signed as a cheaper free agent than Thornton last year. He ended up leading the Cowboys with six sacks. He also managed 4 AV, which led the group of linemen highlighted here. He finished with 382 snaps, sixth among defensive linemen. He’s on this list mostly because during games 9-11 last year, he was benched for Ryan Davis, a street free agent Dallas picked up.
After he returned to the lineup, he managed four of his six sacks over just five games. Can he bring that game consistently in 2017?
Speaking of Stephen Paea, he’s another player trying to regain his form. At 24, in his second year in the NFL, he racked up 8 AV playing nose tackle for the Chicago Bears under Rod Marinelli. He scored 4 and then 6 AV in the following two years in Chicago, but went to Washington in 2015 and only managed 2 AV. They cut him, and he ended up in Cleveland. In both cities he started only one game each year.
Does Paea have a rebirth in him for 2017?
Multiple sources said Moore was released because he repeatedly violated team rules and had behavior and maturity issues that have not improved during his three years in the NFL.
Sources say the final straw was a recent fight between Moore and defensive linemate Cullen Jenkins. One source confirmed an NFL Network report that the two fought over the distribution of free Beats headphones in the locker room. But that source and others also said Moore had been fined several times by the team this year for rules violations and behavior problems and that the decision to waive him was based on the accumulation of issues, not just one fight.
Will Moore find some maturity at the ripe age of 25? He’s going to have an uphill fight just to make the roster, but could he surprise?
The Cowboys have a lot of defensive linemen who need to step up to the plate in 2017. Some of them have been more consistent - Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, 7 AV each - or were injured last year - Charles Tapper. And Taco Charlton is just a rookie.
If the Cowboys want to improve on defense, a big boost is going to need to come from these underachievers. Are they up to it? That’s burning question number 8.