The Cowboys have some fascinating options at defensive end this season. This group has come a long way considering that when the 2015 season began, DeMarcus Lawrence was the only defensive end on the roster who remains in the mix for the 2017 rotation. Last season opened the doors for players like David Irving and Benson Mayowa, who saw an expanded role that they had not been given previously in their careers. And now, three new players will join the group as they look to ignite their NFL careers - the rookie (Taco Charlton), the free agent (Damontre Moore), and the red-shirt (Charles Tapper). It makes for a perplexing situation heading into the new season, however - the upside of all these motley characters has Cowboys fans excited. All of these players have their own things going for them that could make them a candidate to shock some people. There are some good pass rushers in this group, but the only question is - who are they?
Here is a look at each one of the defensive ends who have the upside to be the team’s best pass rusher in 2017.
The Rehabilitated One
A lot of good things can come from a once-touted college player that has struggled to find his way in the NFL. The Cowboys took a chance on linebacker Rolando McClain in 2014 after his career had been derailed following a three-year stint with the Oakland Raiders. McClain came up big that season for the defense as he led all Cowboys linebackers with 87 tackles as and even had two interceptions. While McClain’s story didn’t end well in Dallas, that’s not the say the same will be true of their latest reclamation project, Damontre Moore.
Despite the young age of 24, Moore is well traveled as he’s bounced around with a few teams. He was drafted in the third round in 2013 by the New York Giants, but after a fight with his teammate, he was released. He spent a few games with both the Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks, but hasn’t been able to land a permanent gig. So why would it be any different in Dallas?
Well, it most likely won’t be. The Cowboys invested so little in him that his yearly cash only has one comma in it. And with the numbers the Cowboys have at defensive end, Moore has his work cut out for him. But let’s not forget what Rod Marinelli can do with potential. Rolando McClain wasn’t the only 2014 offseason acquisition that delivered results for the Cowboys that season. In his first year with the team, former sixth-round pick Jeremy Mincey led the Cowboys in sacks that season.
It’s early, but he’s doing well so far.
[Damontre] has done a nice job for us," Garrett said. "[He's] come in here, worked hard, certainly has ability and explosiveness.”
He’s got a lot to prove, but if he keeps his head on straight and maximizes his athletic potential, he could end up being an interesting score for Dallas.
He can be the Cowboys best pass rusher if the combination of talent and coaching materialize into something special. Rod Marinelli has done wonders with players like Mincey and George Selvie, but those guys were late-round draft picks. Damontre has the potential to be much more.
The Combine Breakout Star
When NFL.com did a re-draft of the 2016 NFL draft, they had Dak Prescott going number one overall. With Dak being selected late in the fourth round, that speaks to the enormous value the Cowboys got, but it’s also a reminder that they selected four other players before him. Each time the Cowboys were on the clock, they had this irresistible talent sitting right before them to where the pick just picked itself. Ezekiel Elliott, then Jaylon Smith, then the up-and-coming Maliek Collins who more and more seems like a great steal - these were all talented players that couldn’t be passed up. So when the SPARQ-champ Charles Tapper was still on the board when the Cowboys’ pick came around in the fourth round, the legendary Prescott would have to wait just a little bit longer before hearing his name called.
The Oklahoma pass rushing star sat out the entire 2016 season dealing with a back issue. He’s back now and fans are excited to finally see him in action. In case you missed it the first eleventy times we posted it, here is his spider chart that shows his athleticism.
What Tapper can bring to the defensive line is a great unknown. Will he be healthy? Is he good enough to warrant snaps? All these questions will be answered soon enough, but the explosiveness this type of athletic rusher can bring has many fans intrigued.
He can be the Cowboys best pass rusher if he can stay healthy and his athleticism is maximized in Marinelli’s system. Out of the Cowboys first six draft picks last year, the team has gotten good contribution from four of them, with Jaylon Smith and Tapper being the only odd men out. Of course they were both hurt last year and they will both still get their chance.
The Reigning Sack Leader
As to what has become the norm in the offseason, the Cowboys didn’t make any big free agent signings last year. When Benson Mayowa was brought on board, most fans just shrugged their shoulders and didn’t pay it much attention. The young pass rusher was stuck behind some good players in Oakland so he didn’t get a lot of chances to strut his stuff. Last year in Dallas, Mayowa logged 383 snaps which was the fourth most of any player who logged time at defensive end. Despite playing only 36% of the defensive snaps, the new free agent was able to lead the team in sacks in 2016. That would be an even more impressive feat if it wasn’t just six sacks, but still - that’s not too bad for the new kid on the block.
It’s going to be much harder for Mayowa to repeat as the team’s sack leader as the number of competitors vying for snaps is fierce. But he has an advantage over a few players on this list in that he’s got a year of the system under his belt. If a six-sack performance is what he can do in his debut season, can he follow it up with an even better season?
He can be the Cowboys best pass rusher if he continues to show improvement within this defense. He’s a rangy, explosive first-step player and his career-high six sacks was three times as many as he’s had over his previous three seasons. If he gets more opportunities and continues to trend up, look for a new career high this season.
The Contract Year Player
DeMarcus Lawrence has had a frustrating career in Dallas. After fracturing his foot in training camp during his rookie season, he got a late start to his NFL debut. While he failed to record a sack in the seven regular season games he played in 2014, he came on strong during the playoffs - recording a sack in each of the Cowboys two games, including a game-saving sack/fumble recovery against the Detroit Lions. Lawrence’s second season would again start off slow only to finish real strong. Seven of his team-leading eight sacks came in the second half of the season. He did his damage from the left side as Greg Hardy manned the ship from the right. Some thought Lawrence was starting to find his groove. Others thought he benefited from having a legit RDE on the other side.
When Lawrence was getting some good digs in on Tyron Smith last year in training camp, there were many that were wondering if he was finally ready to turn the corner.
Stephen Jones on NFL Radio: DeMarcus Lawrence had a good training camp this year. He gave Tyron Smith fits.— Mark Lane (@therealmarklane) October 12, 2016
But things didn’t go so well for Lawrence. He was suspended the first four games and never got himself going. He only had one sack in 329 defensive snaps.
So what will 2017 bring for “Tank?” It’s discouraging that after three years with the team, he hasn’t emerged as the player we were all hoping for. And when the team makes a first-round investment in an edge rusher this year, the writing could be on the wall that Lawrence’s days in Dallas are numbered. But there is still a lot of football that will come into play before determining that. He’s in a contract year so if he wants to show the world what he can do he’s going to need to be on the field getting those reps. For a few other of these candidates, 2017 is their first step, but for Lawrence it could be his last and most certainly is an all-important big step in determining what type of NFL career this pass rusher will have.
He can be the Cowboys best pass rusher if he takes the next step. A strong 2017 campaign is paramount for Lawrence if he’s going to amount to anything in this league and he’s running out of time in Dallas to prove himself.
The Rise Of A Giant
The jury is still out on the rest of these guys, but one thing is clear when it comes to David Irving - the Cowboys got a great deal with this guy. After being signed from the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad in 2015, the massive pass rusher has found a nice home in the Cowboys defensive line rotation. He’s been a pleasant surprise over the last couple years, but now fans are wanting to know if he can be a guy that can take it to the next level.
He’s flashed greatness at times with huge splash-making plays for the defense. But then other times he just disappears to where you don’t even know if he’s active. At just 23 years old, the kid’s still developing and it has to be satisfying to see a rise in his playing time. That means he’s starting to earn the coaches trust.
He can be the Cowboys best pass rusher if he continues to trend up. He can create havoc from the inside and outside so he’s going to be disruptive. Irving’s opportunities increased as the season progressed last year and the stage is set for him to breakout even more in 2017. A looming suspension will give everyone else a head start, but look for him to make an impact once he’s on the field.
The One With The Draft Pedigree
While the Cowboys have been busy building their team with elite first-round talent over the last several years, the defensive end position has always been pushed aside. Well, that is no more. After a decade of selecting a different position, the Cowboys finally made a first-round investment in a pass rusher. What makes it even more exciting is that the 2017 draft had a handful of NFL caliber edge rushers to where they Cowboys could still grab one late in the round. And that selection was Taco Charlton.
Rod Marinelli finally has himself a legit talent along the edge. Granted, he’s a rookie and rookies take time to cultivate, but this kid has the size and athletic traits to prosper as a premier talent in this league. Just because he’s a rookie doesn’t mean he can’t pay immediate dividends. Joey Bosa busted onto the scene last season with 10.5 sacks over 12 games. But that’s Bosa. What can a player like Taco do?
Michigan’s defensive line coach Greg Mattison knows Charlton all too well and had this to say about him:
"He reminds me a great deal of Carlos Dunlap, the young man that I had at Florida for two years. They're built alike. When I first had Taco at a young age, he kind of reminded me somewhat of that young man Carlos Dunlap. Now, I didn't have Dunlap at the end like I did with Taco, but build-wise and athleticism-wise, they're kind of the same young man."
Dunlap is a veteran pass rusher who has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons, but he didn’t waste any time making an impression. He had 9.5 sacks in 12 games his rookie season with Cincinnati.
He can be the Cowboys best pass rusher if he hits the ground running. He’s got the height, he’s got the arm length, he’s got the athleticism, and he’s got the character. You throw all of that together with the great teachings of Marinelli and you got a kid with a bright career ahead of him.
Which defensive end to you think will be the Cowboys best pass rusher in 2017?
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