Last year the Cowboys finished with 36 sacks on the year which ranked them 13th in the league. This was a solid improvement from the previous year when they had 31 sacks and finished 25th in the league. But what will the 2017 unit look like? With no splash made in free agency and a rookie edge rusher who isn’t likely to make a big impact right away, some fans are concerned that the pass rush could be in trouble this season. There isn’t a single player on the defensive line that has anyone excited about possibly reaching double-digit sacks.
That may sound a little deflating, but it’s not. The Cowboys will use a committee approach and collectively they may surprise some people with their production. What if I told you the Cowboys could finish top five in sacks this season? Sound ridiculous, right? Let’s breakdown each player and see what type of numbers they could be looking at.
Benson Mayowa - 7.5 sacks
The Cowboys signed Mayowa to a three-year, $8.25 million deal in free agency last year because they liked his upside. After spending three years in Oakland seeing limited action, he came over to Dallas and led the team in sacks. Sure, it was only six sacks, but he did it over 13 games and this was his first year with the team. Mayowa improved down the stretch and will be looking to build off a solid debut season with the Cowboys.
Mayowa is a bendy guy and does a great job getting around the edge. He’s 6’3” and 250 pounds so he’s a little lanky, but he uses his hands well and plays a lot stronger than one might expect. He also moves well laterally and can be effective against the run so that will give him more early down work.
He’s been quiet this preseason as he’s dealt with a knee injury. He played 35 snaps, recording three tackles and a tackle for a loss. He may not start the season as the team’s starting RDE, but he’ll get plenty of reps within the rotation and could be a legit force down the stretch. Reaching 7.5 sacks is only a 1.5 sack improvement from last year so that’s perfectly within reason.
David Irving - 7 sacks
Yes, Irving will miss the first four games as he serves a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse program (PEDs), but once he gets back on the field - look out. Irving looked great in preseason and could take the next big step in his third NFL season. He only had four sacks last year in relief duty, but he started seeing his playing time increased as the season progressed. And it wasn’t just his sacks that had fans excited. Irving knocked down five passes and forced four fumbles. Overall, he was just a havoc wreaking beast.
The Cowboys are going to miss dearly the first four games of the season pic.twitter.com/v6KGDRzxEp— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 7, 2017
Irving’s ability to play inside and outside in different situations should mesh nicely with the arrangement of Cowboys pass rushers. They’ll be able to get the best guys out there on the field and you better believe Irving will be one of them. With more playing time on the docket this year, look for Irving to continue his disruptive efficiency. He’d be a good candidate to reach double-digits sacks if he played a full season, but with him making the most of snaps, seven is an obtainable number.
Maliek Collins - 6 sacks
The third-round pick from Nebraska had a great rookie season for the Cowboys. At first, it was easy for him to get lost in the shadows of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, but with as much buzz as he’s creating this year in camp, people are well aware of who he is now. And if you asked the teammate that has gotten a front row seat to his destruction in the trenches, the reviews are pretty good.
Zack Martin: "I truly believe [Maliek Collins] is going to be one of the top three-techs in the NFL." https://t.co/mG10BZMeNj— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 24, 2017
Collins is the team’s best defensive lineman and all that he does won’t show up in the stat line. During his last two years at Nebraska, he had 88 pressures which was third out of all interior defenders in his draft class. Getting six sacks is only a one-sack improvement from last year so that’s well within his reach. He could reach half of that total just by facing the Giants porous offensive line twice.
DeMarcus Lawrence - 4.5 sacks
Tank led the team in sacks in 2015 with eight, but all that damage was done on the left side. He had Greg Hardy on the other side taking on the opponents best blocker. Lawrence has battled injuries in 2014 and a suspension last year so his career up to this point has been inconsistent, but he’s healthy now and will start the season ready to go. This is a contract year for him so look for Lawrence to make a good run at it. Once the team gets to full strength, there will be some other formidable options in the rotation and he could find playing time harder to come by.
Taco Charlton - 4 sacks
Only having four sacks on the season is not what many fans have in mind when the team invested a first-round pick on a pass rusher. But it’s not terrible either. Charlton has flashed some good play in preseason, but he’s a development player. Look for him to get off to a slow start, but then three of his sacks to come in the last six games of the year.
Tyrone Crawford - 3 sacks
Recently anointed team captain, Crawford has been one of them most impressive pass rushers in camp so far. So why is his sack projection total so low? Well, there are a couple reasons. First, in Crawford’s first four seasons in the league, he has a total of 12.5 sacks so three sacks a year is par for the course. And despite playing many games while ailing, he’s only missed three games in his career so it’s not like he’s losing opportunities.
But another factor that could limit his sack total is deferring snaps to other guys. Snap-for-snap, Crawford is not one of your more effective quarterback sack makers on the team and sharing reps will impact his overall numbers.
Damontre Moore - 2.5 sacks
The Cowboys were frugal with their free agent investments as they signed reclamation project Damontre Moore on a two-year, $1.65 million deal. He’s a low-risk, high-upside guy and possesses the traits the team looks for on the edge. He’s quick off the ball and bends well to capture the corner. He had a sack in the Cowboys dress rehearsal game.
Moore will miss the first two games due to a suspension, but he will be a solid depth guy once he returns to action.
Stephen Paea - 1.5 sacks
The 28-year old veteran had six sacks in 2014 when he was with the Chicago Bears. He’s struggled the following two seasons with Washington and then Cleveland, but he now rejoins Rod Marinelli. Paea has not only jumped Cedric Thornton on the depth job, but Thornton was released - leaving Paea as the clear-cut starter. Paea has the quickness to easily surpass this sack total, but he’ll do most of the dirty work disrupting the blocking scheme. The combination of Paea and Collins in the interior will help aid the guys on the edge get more one-on-one opportunities
Jay Elliott - 1 sack
The Cowboys traded a conditional 2018 seven-round draft pick to the Green Bay Packers for outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott. The condition is - he must be on the Cowboys active roster for three games. This works out conveniently for the Cowboys as they can now use his services while Moore serves his suspension. This is a win-win for the Cowboys. If Elliott does enough to remain on the team, then the Cowboys will have gotten a good value player for a seventh-round price. If not, then they’ve rented an extra body for a couple games at no cost.
This sack estimate is not likely to happen. If he sticks around, it should end up being a little higher. If he doesn’t, he’ll probably end up with a goose egg.
Brian Price - 0.5 sack
The Cowboys claimed Price off of waivers after the Packers released him last week. He was all ready to sign onto Green Bay’s practice squad when the Cowboys came calling. Not only did Dallas want Price over UDFA Lewis Neal, but they also released veteran DT, Thornton to make room for him. Price had a great preseason with the Packers as he finished with 11 tackles, one sack, and two forced fumbles. While he’s a nice young player that could develop into a meaningful contributor on the interior line, expectations should be kept low for now. Barring injury, there won’t be a lot of reps up for grabs.
Charles Tapper - no sacks
When the Cowboys get Irving and Moore back from their suspensions, someone is going to have to be cut to make room. Whether it’s from dealing with health or not making enough of an impact - Tapper is a guy I suspect could be the odd man out. This would not come as good news for those who have had high hopes for Tapper, but this speaks more to the strength of the entire group than a slight at Tapper. Someone has to be the weakest link and Tapper could be that guy.
The back seven - 5 sacks
Whether it be Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lee, Chidobe Awuzie, or even Jaylon Smith - the Cowboys will get around half a dozen sacks from other defensive players. That’s been the average number in recent years.
The sack totals of Mayowa and Irving might be higher than you’d expect, but someone is going to emerge as a solid threat and these two players have the upside to deliver. And it would be unrealistic for people to think all these players stay healthy so there are some players (Lawrence and Crawford) that are on the low side factoring the potential of missing time. When you add everything up, that equals 42.5 sacks on the season. That total would be good enough to rank the Cowboys 3rd for 2016. Now, the defense may not be reach that total, but don’t be surprised if they are close. While they still lack a dominant pass rusher, they have the pieces in place to be effective collectively.