The 2014 Dallas Cowboys weren't supposed to be very good. Coming off of a season in which their defense was the worst in league history, that side of the ball looked poised to once again drag the Cowboys down a losing path.
Instead, Dallas' dominant offensive line and running game fueled by DeMarco Murray protected this defense, as they shocked the world by holding their own through a 12-4 season that saw Jason Garrett's squad win the NFC East before losing at Green Bay in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.
That season, Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli's front four consisted primarily of Jeremy Mincey and George Selvie at defensive end, with Tyrone Crawford and Nick Hayden playing inside at tackle. While the group still finished 28th in the league in sacks, these veteran pass rushers knew how to make timely plays, and it was a big part of the defense's overall success.
Ultimately, the eventual shortcomings on the defensive line were a big reason why the Cowboys failed to advance past Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the playoffs on that faithful day when Dez Bryant caught the football.
Sensing that they were on the verge of something special with their offensive line, the Cowboys made some serious investments into the opposite trenches prior to the 2015 season.
DeMarcus Lawrence was set to return from injury, and Greg Hardy was added to disrupt quarterbacks across from him. Randy Gregory was also drafted with the team's second round pick, a pure pass rusher out of Nebraska that came with his off-field issues.
Instead, Hardy was more of a disruption towards the culture of the football team, as DeMarcus Lawrence simultaneously had his breakout year washed away by injuries to the offensive side of the ball. While it was not off the field issues that got to Gregory, his rookie season was also dampened by injuries, as the Dallas defense managed just 31 sacks – three more than their 2014 total.
Fast forward to 2016, where a new group of defensive linemen have an abundance of confidence in themselves – while the same cannot be said for the fans planning on watching this team once again struggle to sack the quarterback in 2016.
Ryan Russell: "We have enough pass rush out here to be the best defensive unit in the league and the best defensive line in the league."
Greg Hardy is long-gone out of the Cowboys' equation at defensive end, and unfortunately so is Randy Gregory for the foreseeable future. His initial four game suspension for repeated violations of the league's drug policy is expected to increase to 10 or 14 games, with Randy missing more tests before checking himself into a rehabilitation center – and missing training camp.
DeMarcus Lawrence's four game suspension is still in place, leaving the Dallas Cowboys with a defensive line full of interesting names, but absent of proven ability.
Before the pads go on today and throughout training camp, let's set some early expectations for the Cowboys' pass rush, based on previous year's production.
As mentioned, the Cowboys looked for a quick fix to their pass rushing woes in 2015, with some awfully disappointing results. Now looking ahead to 2016, their biggest acquisition to fill their biggest need was Benson Mayowa – signed from the Oakland Raiders on a three year deal as a gifted and blooming defensive end.
In the draft, the Cowboys waited until the fourth round to select Oklahoma's Charles Tapper, who played out of position as a Sooner in his defensive scheme. They also addressed the defensive line with their third round pick, in drafting Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins, but he will unfortunately miss significant time through training camp and the preseason due to injury.
Of course, Dallas' first round pick was running back Ezekiel Elliott, who the team is hoping can help them replicate that 2014 style of winning football. If Elliott is grinding out yards on the ground, while running down the game clock, the Cowboys defense will be left on the sideline for most of the game. When they are called on, it will ideally be to protect the lead, which allows pass rushers to set focus on pressuring the quarterback without the consistent threat of playing the run.
If Zeke can have this effect as a rookie, the primary defensive linemen that will get their chance to benefit are – as of the start of training camp – Ryan Russell, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, and DeMarcus Lawrence.
Crawford, McClain, and Lawrence are still with the team from 2014, and all project to be a lot better than they were two seasons ago if on the field consistently. If McClain can stay healthy, he and the newly acquired Cedric Thornton will help Tyrone Crawford out massively by eating up space as 1T defensive tackles.
Crawford, who essentially played all of 2015 with one arm, will absolutely be looking to return to his dominant form in the middle of the Cowboys' defensive line. We already know that Lawrence will start the season with his suspension, leaving the defensive end spots wide open during that time.
Second-year player Ryan Russell is an intriguing player that, like rookie Charles Tapper, played out of scheme in college. The Purdue product has transformed himself from a forgotten Cowboy after his rookie season to one that has garnered tons of praise from coaches and media members alike.
If other plays around Russell are able to step up, he could become an incredibly valuable rotational piece for Rod Marinelli's defense, with a chance to be much more than that until week 5 in the absence of Lawrence.
Elsewhere at defensive end, Jack Crawford and David Irving are two names to keep an eye on. Both players are capable of playing on the edge or in the middle of the defensive line, which gives Dallas some much-needed match up versatility upfront. Particularly, I'll be keeping a close eye throughout camp at David Irving, who made the most of his time with the team after being signed mid-season as a long-armed defensive tackle that fit what the Cowboys' look for when it comes to traits along their front four.
Jack Crawford has provided an instant spark to the Cowboys' pass rush as a rotational piece since 2014, and is back on a one year deal to do the same in 2016.
When you run through it this way, the “waves” of defensive linemen that the Cowboys will be able to run onto the field certainly seem pretty intriguing. Taking all of this into consideration, it is still easy to understand why so many members of Cowboys Nation will say that this team is arrogant to assume that a successful campaign like that of 2014 can be emulated with the same formula this season – regardless of which defensive linemen fall just short of taking that next big step forward.
While I entirely understand the argument, staring at the same front four that features a combined 22.5 career sacks, my hope for this defensive line remains in the fact that they are much deeper, and much more versatile, than in 2014.
For Rod Marinelli, who understands that depth and versatility do little but put you in a position to win games come Sundays, the question this summer will be to find out if any of his unproven pass rushers can take advantage of the situation in front of them and actually sack opposing quarterbacks.
With pads coming on and the best offensive line in the l
eague world staring down these “rushmen”, it is certainly going to be a summer to remember – good or bad – for the Dallas Cowboys in the trenches.
Does the Cowboys 2014 defense give you hope for their 2016 unit? What defensive linemen do YOU think need to step up this season? Let us know! Start the conversation with a comment below, or email me at anytime at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com!
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