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Why Dallas Cowboys have better pass rushers in 2017 than last year

Let’s do a player-by-player comparison.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This article is inspired by Todd Archer’s recent article on the ESPN blog predicting the Cowboys to finish 9-7. In it, he uses the lack of a Dallas pass rush to explain several predicted losses. For example, in week five, he has the Cowboys losing to the Packers:

Will the Cowboys get revenge for their playoff loss in January? Aaron Rodgers’ third-and-forever pass that set up the winning field goal still stings. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, their lack of a pass rush will hurt them again in this game. Record: 2-3

He also predicts a late-season loss to the Giants on the lack of a pass rush.

The Cowboys will get a 10-day break leading up to a pivotal NFC East matchup, which is a good thing. They’ll need it to heal up after three games in 12 days. But Odell Beckham Jr. has a big game. So does Brandon Marshall. The lack of a pass rush will be glaring. Record: 7-6

It’s possible that Archer is right. The Cowboys may, in fact, suffer from a weaker-than-necessary pass rush. With an unproven secondary, it’s also possible that the pass rush could be better and still not get home if receivers are open for quick passes.

But let’s just look at the pass rushers themselves to see if the Cowboys are likely to be better or worse than last year. Before we jump into that analysis, let us look at the snap counts for the defensive linemen last year.

Player Pos Games Gms 1-9 Gm 10 Gm 11 Gm 12 Gm 13 Gm 14 Gm 15 Gm 16 Total Total Percent
Maliek Collins DT 16 333 28 34 49 46 46 65 58 659 1058 62%
Tyrone Crawford DE/DT 14 384 36 49 49 50 25 0 0 593 1058 56%
Jack Crawford DE/DT 16 356 20 25 22 23 21 43 51 561 1058 53%
David Irving DE/DT 16 179 26 43 41 36 38 67 59 489 1058 46%
Terrell McClain DT 15 314 21 24 31 29 40 12 0 471 1058 45%
Benson Mayowa DE 13 202 0 0 22 42 34 42 40 382 1058 36%
DeMarcus Lawrence DE 9 168 41 52 55 13 0 0 0 329 1058 31%
Cedric Thornton DT 13 193 18 21 21 24 0 0 0 277 1058 26%
Ryan Davis DE 8 80 14 24 0 0 28 9 0 155 1058 15%
Randy Gregory DE 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 23 43 66 1058 6%
Richard Ash DT 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 30 30 1058 3%

To compare, we’re going to go down the list by number of snap counts, but compare the players by how we think they’ll rank this season against the comparable player from last year. In each case, the 2017 player is listed first, followed by their 2016 counterpart.

Maliek Collins year two v. Maliek Collins rookie season

2016. Maliek Collins career didn’t seem to get off on the right foot when he broke his foot during OTAs last year, causing him to miss training camp and pre-season. Yet he was ready week one, and very quickly forced the Cowboys to install him as the starting 3-technique and move Tyrone Crawford out to defensive end. He ended up leading the defensive line in snaps, with 6% more snaps than Crawford. He also had five sacks, which is very good production from a defensive tackle and rookie. He tied Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain for the team lead among defensive linemen with 7 AV (approximate value). Pro Football Focus didn’t like his game, giving him a 42.7 player grade and ranking him 120th, mostly because they deeply discounted his run defense. As a pass rusher, PFF ranked him 24th among interior defenders.

2017. This year, Maliek Collins has remained healthy and had a full training camp and pre-season to get ready, plus an offseason to strengthen his core. One player who has been impressed by Collins in year two is Zack Martin, whom he’s faced off against over and over in practice.

"He's got that combination of leverage and strength and speed and quickness," Martin said. "He's great to work against because I truly believe he's going to be one of the top three-techs in the NFL."

Here’s some video.

Rod Marinelli is also a fan.

"He's built perfect for the position," Marinelli said. "He's got that low center of gravity and great feet. He's like a big fullback playing out there athletically. I think it's coming for him. Plus, he gets an opportunity every day to work against Zack [Martin], the best blocker in football. It's a challenge every day to be ready to go. He seems to really take to that challenge."

Conclusion: Big upgrade.

Tyrone Crawford 2017 v. Tyrone Crawford 2016

2016. A lot of fans seem to be disappointed by Tyrone Crawford. First it was the injuries he suffered, with the achilles tear, then the repeated shoulder injuries which he often played through. Next it was his big contract, which he will have a hard time living up to. He’s also been forced to change positions multiple times. Drafted as a 3-4 defensive end, he was converted to the 3-technique when the Cowboys switched back to a 4-3. Then last year, with Maliek Collins coming on and DeMarcus Lawrence suspended, the Cowboys moved him to the left defensive end slot. He said he liked it there more because it was less wear and tear on his body. Still, through it all, Crawford has remained a steady, if unspectacular performer. He scored 7 AV. PFF gave him a 75.2 grade, which was second best on the Cowboys, behind David Irving’s 78.4. He had 4.5 sacks.

2017. This year, Crawford has once again healed up his shoulders, and looked fresh in training camp. Unfortunately, he rolled his ankle badly in practice, but lucked out that it wasn’t worse, and is expected to be able to start against the Giants in week one. It’s anyone’s guess whether this year’s Crawford will be better than last year’s version. It could be, especially if there is more pressure from elsewhere on the line. But for now, we’ll call this one a push.

Conclusion: Same production

DeMarcus Lawrence 2017 v. Jack Crawford 2016

2016. Jack Crawford is one of those journeymen who proves his value through his versatility. The Cowboys got him originally to back up on the edge, then used him mostly inside, then in 2016 pushed him back to right defensive end, where he started a lot of games and played 53% of the defensive line snaps. Pro Football Reference gave him 7 AV. However, PFF gave him a 42.9 score, equally bad at run defense as pass rush. The Cowboys didn’t attempt to re-sign him, so he signed a three-year $8.8 million deal with Atlanta.

2017. DeMarcus Lawrence is the most likely candidate to take over Crawford’s snaps. Indeed, Lawrence might end up rivaling Tyrone Crawford for number of snaps. He’s no longer suspended, and his back ailment appears to be healed. He’s also in a contract year, so he’ll be plenty motivated. Last year, Lawrence was a huge disappointment, with only one sack, compared to eight in 2015, when he played opposite Greg Hardy. Early in camp, he got some raves.

Demarcus Lawrence is the best DL here and it's not close. Based on drills which is dumb. But he's explosive, healthy, strong.

— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) July 25, 2017

There is no question that Lawrence is a big upgrade from Jack Crawford. The question is how good can he be?

Conclusion: Big upgrade

David Irving 2017 v. David Irving 2016

2016. David Irving is a bit of an enigma. Against the Packers early last year, he earned defensive player of the week.

In 19 snaps, the Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman had one tackle, one sack, one tackle for loss, one pass deflection, one fumble recovery and tied a team record with three forced fumbles, including one of Aaron Rodgers as the Green Bay Packers were poised to score from the Dallas 1.

He also took over the end of the Tampa Bay game.

And he was held/tackled by the Green Bay offensive line on the penultimate play of the playoff loss to the Packers.

Yet Irving was also ejected on the first series of the Browns game, and finished the season with only four sacks. His inconsistency is a bit maddening.

2017. Irving seemed poised to take on a bigger role this season, but then was suspended four games for taking a banned substance. This could be a significant setback for him, as it was for Lawrence last year. Or, he could use it as motivation to become more consistent and more dominant. He has all the tools. Could he be the Cowboys best defensive lineman? It will be hard for him to outwork Maliek Collins, but he could certainly give DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford a run for their money. The Cowboys need him to find that gear where he excels every play of every game. The other question for Irving is whether he should play inside or outside. With so many defensive ends on the roster, the Cowboys may need him more inside, and that’s where he blew up the Packers game. Yet against Tampa, he was playing left defensive end. Wherever it is, he has the potential to become a monster.

Conclusion: Potential upgrade

Stephen Paea 2017 v. Terrell McClain 2016

2016. In 2016, Terrell McClain was finally healthy for a season, and it made a huge difference. The Cowboys made their biggest free agent signing last year to bring in Cedric Thornton at defensive tackle, but McClain wouldn’t let him on the field. McClain finished with only 2.5 sacks, but forced two fumbles, and was very disruptive inside. PFF didn’t like his game, giving him a 52.2 score, equally divided between run stopping and pass rush. Washington liked him enough to give him a four year $21 million deal.

2017. To replace McClain, Dallas went bargain hunting and signed Stephen Paea to a one-year $2 million contract. Paea was eager to rejoin Rod Marinelli and become a penetrating defensive tackle again instead of playing a two-gapping nose in a 3-4, like he’d been in Cleveland and Washington. All signs from Cowboys training camp looked good.

In Chicago under Marinelli, Paea had a 6-sack year in 2014. PFF also liked him last year, even though it may not have been his best position, giving him a 77.5 score, with better run stopping than pass rush grades. As long as he can stay healthy - he’s been rested because of recurring knee issues - he’s looking like a potential upgrade to Terrell McClain.

Conclusion: Potential upgrade

Benson Mayowa/Damontre Moore 2017 v. Benson Mayowa/Ryan Davis 2016

2016. We’re going to merge two guys here, because Benson Mayowa and Ryan Davis were really merged players in 2016. Davis was signed after the season started, and for three games forced Dallas to bench Mayowa, who they’d signed to a free agent contract in 2016. If it was designed to light a fire under Mayowa, it worked, as Mayowa forced himself back into the starting lineup and accumulated most of his team-leading six sacks after he returned.

2017. This year, Mayowa may be in a similar contest with free agent Damontre Moore, who the Cowboys brought in seeking more of a speed rusher from the edge. (Their first hope on that score, Randy Gregory, is suspended for 2017.) Moore has impressed in training camp and pre-season. With competition seeming to bring out the best in Mayowa, and having a year under Rod Marinelli under his belt, this looks like a promising combo for the Cowboys.

Conclusion: Upgrade

Taco Charlton 2017 v. DeMarcus Lawrence 2016

2016. DeMarcus Lawrence was a big disappointment in 2016. He started by being suspended four games. Then, when he finally worked himself back into shape, he actually led the defensive linemen in snaps in games 10-12, before his back gave out and he was shelved until the playoffs. He finished the year with 329 snaps, or 31%.

2017. This is the perfect spot for Charlton. With veterans Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence, and possibly David Irving (if he plays the edge) ahead of him, and speed rushers Benson Mayowa and Damontre Moore fighting for snaps, Taco may not get more than 300-400 snaps his rookie year while he develops strength and moves. Taco might also get used inside some on pass rushing downs. It would be very hard for him not to be an upgrade over Lawrence’s 2016. The only thing keeping it from being a big upgrade is the number of snaps.

Conclusion: Upgrade

Cedric Thornton 2017 v. Cedric Thornton 2016

2016. Cedric Thornton was the Cowboys biggest free agent splash of the last two years last season, signing a four-year $17 million contract with a $5 million signing bonus. He was a big disappointment. He couldn’t beat out Terrell McClain for the 1-technique job. Then he had four weeks when he was active when he had fewer than 10 snaps, and only one game above 20 snaps on the season. He was inactive the last three games of the season. PFF gave him a generous 67.1 score, but this was below each of his four years in Philadelphia. Pro Football Reference gave him 2 AV, after years of 8, 8, and 5 AV in Philly.

2017. Thornton hasn’t been seen tearing it up in training camp or preseason, in part because he’s been on the injury list, but it would be difficult to play worse than he did in 2016. Stephen Paea has clearly passed him as McClain did last year. Still, it’s likely he’ll show some bounce back in 2017.

Conclusion: Potential upgrade.

Potential extras 2017 v. Extras 2016

2016. The biggest extra from 2016 was Ryan Davis, and we discussed him with Benson Mayowa. Randy Gregory also got into the last two games of the year, and showed why the Cowboys took a risk to draft him. The only other extra was Richard Ash, but he was used only to rest regulars for the meaningless last game in Philadelphia.

2017. The Cowboys have quite a few potential extras this year. Charles Tapper has returned from injury. We’ve also seen Lewis Neal, Joey Ivie, Jordan Carrell, Lenny Jones, and others. With suspensions for Damontre Moore and David Irving, one or more of these players may make the initial 53, but will they be active, or get snaps? The Cowboys generally use just an eight-man rotation, so the extras won’t be needed unless someone gets hurt. But the depth is definitely better this year once you discount Gregory for his suspension problems.

Conclusion: upgrade

Recap and Conclusion

When evaluated on a player-by-player level, it looks like the Cowboys should have a much better defensive line this season than last. Here’s a recap:

Maliek Collins v. Maliek Collins - big upgrade

Tyrone Crawford v. Tyrone Crawford - same production

DeMarcus Lawrence v. Jack Crawford - big upgrade

David Irving v. David Irving - potential upgrade

Stephen Paea v. Terrell McClain - potential upgrade

Benson Mayowa/Damontre Moore v. Benson Mayowa/Ryan Davis - upgrade

Taco Charlton v. DeMarcus Lawrence - upgrade

Cedric Thornton v. Cedric Thornton - potential upgrade

Potential extras v. extras - upgrade

There really isn’t a single position where the Cowboys should expect less production this year than last. It will be very interesting to see how well they can mesh together and get after opposing quarterbacks.

What do you think?