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Cowboys Pass Rush Woes: How 2016 Could Break the Mold

Sean Martin

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DeMarcus Lawrence, Aaron Rodgers, Packers

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.

Jon Machota on Twitter

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.

 

Tapper2

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.

 

Lawrence

 

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 league 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!

You can also click here to follow me on Twitter @ShoreSportsNJ, and tweet me with any Cowboys camp questions, comments, and thoughts throughout the summer. 

Tell us what you think about "Cowboys Pass Rush Woes: How 2016 Could Break the Mold" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys Hoping to Bring Scouting Combine to The Star in Frisco

Sean Martin

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Dallas Cowboys Hoping to Bring Scouting Combine to The Star 1

When the Dallas Cowboys opened their world-class headquarters in Frisco, affectionately named The Star, the possibilities were endless for the franchise that embraces football being bigger than life in a state where that's certainly the case.

Not only have the Cowboys hosted more football than ever with AT&T Stadium serving as their home and the Ford Center at The Star being a shared practice space with local high schools, but they became the first team to host the NFL Draft from their stadium in April.

Just as the draft has become a spectacle for fans and media alike, the all-important Scouting Combine that leads up to the draft each year is a fully televised event now. Held in Indianapolis since 1987, the Cowboys will have to prove they're well prepared to handle the burden of a Scouting Combine while disrupting the continuity that Lucas Oil Stadium has provided.

The biggest advantage that Indianapolis has held through years of the Combine's development is their stadium's proximity to local hospitals. Any scout or draft analyst will tell you that the most important thing draft prospects go through during the Combine is their medical checks, something they can now do at The Star without setback.

Across the street from The Star is now the Baylor, Scott & White Sports Therapy & Research center, a brand new medical facility that spans 300,000 square feet. The Cowboys will even have their time to work out the kinks of potentially hosting the Combine, with Indianapolis still under contract to host the event through 2020.

The Combine also serves as a key point in the NFL offseason where executives and coaches from every team are together, often leading to trade talks that impact the following draft. Imagination can run wild with the Cowboys hosting the Combine on campus at The Star, and rival head coaches meeting in a Sushi Marquee, Cow Tipping Creamery, or Luxe Eyewear.

Dallas Cowboys Hoping to Bring Scouting Combine to The Star

These are merely three of the hundreds of auxiliary features in place at The Star, ready to take the Combine to the next level, as Dallas already did with this year's NFL Draft.

Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and Left Guard Connor Williams became the first players to be drafted in the stadium they'll call home. Within a few years, prospects fortunate enough to get the call from America's Team may feel an even deeper connection to the Cowboys, going through their job interview that is the Combine at the team's headquarters.

Jerry Jones has stated that The Star was never designed with the thought of hosting a Combine in mind, but this does not mean preparations will not take place for the Cowboys to be ready following two more years in Indianapolis.

Tell us what you think about "Dallas Cowboys Hoping to Bring Scouting Combine to The Star in Frisco" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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How Did the Dallas Cowboys Fare in This Year’s NFL 100?

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Ezekiel Elliott, Bears
Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports

Every year, NFL Network releases a "Top 100" list of all the players in the league. What's special about this list is that the voters are actually fellow NFL players. We have tons of rankings from analysts and scouts all year long, so it's fun to see what the persons who actually put on shoulders and helmets week after week have to say about their peers.

However, that's precisely what makes it very controversial among fans. Year after year, we see players getting underrated and players getting ranked way ahead than they should.

Take Dak Prescott in 2017, for example. The young quarterback put on a show as a fourth-round rookie that no one could have expected from him. As impressive as he was, it's hard to defend him being ranked as the fourteenth best player in the NFL, which is how he was ranked in the NFL 100 last year.

This Monday, the 2018 Top 10 will be announced on NFL Network at 7 PM CT, but no Cowboys' name will be mentioned.

So, without getting frustrated about this year's results, let's take a look at how the Dallas Cowboys fared this time around.

What Does Zack Martin Have in Common With Larry Allen?

#71: RG Zack Martin

2017 Ranking: #58.

I'm pretty sure that Zack Martin doesn't even care about the NFL 100 list, especially after he became the highest-paid guard in NFL history just days ago. For the Cowboys, even with Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick on the same offensive line, Zack Martin might be the best lineman on the roster. At the very least, there's an argument to be made.

It's not very surprising to see Martin all the way at #71. Offensive guard is a very overlooked position by many, so it does make a tiny bit of sense for him to be ranked where he is.

What is surprising though, is the fact that Pittsburgh Steeler David DeCastro is ranked at #44. Both players are great guards, but Martin is widely acknowledged as the best at his position. Maybe playoff success came into account?

#54: RB Ezekiel Elliott

2017 Ranking: 7.

Ezekiel Elliott stumbled quite a bit this year, which is completely understandable. First of all, the 2016 season was electric. The narrative of two rookies taking the league by storm and earning the #1 seed in the NFC was unique.

Things changed for the superstar running back in 2017, though. Elliott had to deal with tons of off-field drama while fighting a six-game suspension that ended up being upheld and Zeke had to miss some time.

This is undoubtedly what made Elliott, who is easily a top three running back in the NFL, fall all the way out of the top 50. Despite having had pretty good years, I can assure you that Kareem Hunt (ranked at 33) and Mark Ingram (43) are not even in the same tier as Zeke.

#39: LT Tyron Smith

2017 Ranking: 18.

I'm not going to lie, I'm not complaining about this one. Just like the rest of the offensive linemen, Tyron may be undervalued here. However, he is the best tackle on the list, so it's certainly tough to be mad about this.

Besides, don't forget Tyron didn't play the entire season after being out for three games. Not saying that makes him a worse player or anything, but it helps make sense of his spot on the list.

With former Cleveland Brown Joe Thomas enjoying retirement, it's easier to see Smith as the clear-cut best tackle in the NFL today. He's a beast. If he finds a way to play 16 games next season, I'm sure he will climb the rankings in 2019.

#34: DE DeMarcus Lawrence

2017 Ranking: Unranked. 

Last but not least is the Cowboys' breakout player of the year. Lawrence finally proved his worth getting to the opposing quarterbacks 14.5 times on the year. Not to mention, his game against the run was pretty remarkable and he helped take the defense to another level.

This was the first season in D-Law's career in which he remained completely healthy all along and it showed on the field. Thanks to his performance, the team handed him the franchise tag and hopefully he'll get a big, juicy contract once he continues dominating this year.

https://twitter.com/TankLawrence/status/1003853184782094336

Six defensive ends were ranked ahead of him, so we will have to wait and see if he keeps it up in 2018 after being named a second team All-Pro in 2017.

The Snub: C Travis Frederick

The one thing that is outrageous from this year's list is the absence of Travis Frederick. I understand there aren't any other centers on the list, but they should at least include the best at his position, right?

Frederick is undoubtedly one of the most valuable players on the Cowboys' roster and a player that through five years in the league, has been to the Pro Bowl four times. One of the NFL's finest, he definitely deserves to be on that list.

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But hey, as previously mentioned, this list is meant to be fun. It's cool to hear what the players (teammates and rivals) have to say about one another during this series. Instead of taking it as an official ranking or anything of the sort, it's better to see it as a fun piece of content by NFL Network.

Let me know what your thoughts on these rankings are on the comments section below or tweet me @PepoR99 to talk some football!

Tell me what you think about "How Did the Dallas Cowboys Fare in This Year’s NFL 100?" in the comments below, or tweet me @PepoR99 and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!



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5 Winners from Dallas Cowboys OTAs and Minicamp

John Williams

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Cowboys en Español: Caras Nuevas, ¿Tenemos Cornerbacks?, Adiós Ware
James D. Smith/Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys have completed the offseason part of their practices and are now eyeing the start of training camp in Oxnard, California on July 26th. The offseason stuff doesn't necessarily show what a team thinks about a player near as much as training camp, so I won't look at any losers because these practices have varying personnel at times.

That being said, there certainly were some winners during the offseason.

1. Jaylon Smith, Linebacker

Every day removed from his injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl is another day closer to potentially seeing the All-American linebacker that would have been a top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

With the knee injury, there's always been some doubt about Jaylon returning to that level of play, but as offseason practices wore on it was becoming clear that he's much healthier and much more mobile than he was in 2017.

Both of those things are strong signs in the right direction for the third year pro.

After sitting out his rookie season to rehab and then having some good moments and some really bad moments in 2017, it sounds like he's making progress to be a difference maker in 2018.

During OTAs and minicamp sessions that were open to the media, Jaylon was seen running with the first-team defense every time they took the field. Now, some of that is due to the Cowboys limiting the snaps of veteran All-Pro Sean Lee and rookie first round pick Leighton Vander Esch, who came up with a sprained ankle, but the fact that Smith's snaps weren't limited should only be seen as a good sign.

We still have a long way to go until the Dallas Cowboys strap it on for their week one matchup with the Carolina Panthers, but Jaylon Smith is on an excellent trajectory.

Anyone with a Clear, Eye, View can see that.

2. Anthony Brown, Cornerback

One of the bigger surprises during the offseason practices so far has to be Anthony Brown, and not Jourdan Lewis, running with the first team nickel defense.

Jourdan Lewis proved he was a really good corner in his rookie year, both in the slot and on the outside, while Anthony Brown struggled at times. Knowing that new Defensive Backs Coach and Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard prefers his corners to be tall, long, and strong has led to some speculation that Lewis may not be a fit in Richard's scheme.

That's certainly a possibility. The more realistic possibility is that Brown, with more seniority, was getting the opportunities first as is often the case with Jason Garrett coached teams during the offseason.

While Brown is a pretty good slot cornerback in his own right, this might only be temporary.

Understanding Cowboys Remaining Offseason "To-Do List"

Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup

3. Michael Gallup, Wide Receiver

As I read reports from OTAs and minicamp practices, one thing that stood out is that Michael Gallup was winning and winning a lot.

When asked in a mailbag who had been building the best rapport with Quarterback Dak Prescott, Bryan Broaddus from DallasCowboys.com had this to say:

"Bryan: That’s a great question. The guys that come to mind for this [sic] me are Michael Gallup and Blake Jarwin. Those guys have found ways to generate space and have been reliable catching the ball when it’s thrown in their direction."

Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com

Just a few days earlier Broaddus stated that Cole Beasley and Gallup were the only ones getting open with any consistency.

Now, it's still early and it's padless practice, but that's an encouraging sign for the third round pick out of Colorado State.

Typically it takes a year for wide receivers to adjust to the NFL game, especially with how much press coverage is played by NFL defensive backs. One of the byproducts of Kris Richard's existence as the defensive backs coach is that they're playing more press coverage. He's teaching his DB's to be more aggressive and more physical at the line of scrimmage.

For Gallup and the rest of the wide receiver group, that can only help them as they get ready to face opposing defenses. One way to disrupt timing-based routes or an offense that relies on separation and yards after the catch is to disrupt the receiver at the snap. Every practice, these guys are working to beat the press.

As a rookie wide receiver, this can only benefit Gallup -- in particular -- as that will be a big transition from college where defenses are playing off the line of scrimmage against the countless number of spread offenses that exist.

The fact that he's already winning reps during practices against some pretty good corners is a great sign for the Dallas Cowboys.

He may not be a starter in this offense right away, but I doubt it takes long before he's cemented himself in three and four wide receiver personnel groupings.

4. Chaz Green, Guard

I'm sure you aren't a fan of seeing Chaz Green's name anywhere near a "winners" list. As bad as the Atlanta Falcons game was for him, we can't ignore the fact that Green got a lot of first team repetitions during OTAs and minicamp while Zack Martin negotiated his contract extension.

Either that means the Dallas Cowboys haven't given up on their third round pick from 2015 or they're trying to get as many practice snaps out of him as possible to be able to make a clearer decision regarding his future with the team.

Getting to play with the ones is encouraging, but he still has a lot to prove during training camp to keep a spot on the roster. Green's going to get a long leash as a former premium draft pick. We'll see if he takes advantage of it.

5. Jihad Ward, Defensive Tackle

Maliek Collins hurt his foot -- again -- and David Irving was dealing with off the field stuff -- again -- leaving Jihad Ward with a lot of opportunities to play against the first team offensive line as the three-technique defensive tackle.

On June 4th, I asked Bryan Broaddus from DallasCowboys.com who his biggest surprises on offense and defense were during OTAs:

Bryan Broaddus on Twitter

Cedrick Wilson and Jihad Ward https://t.co/kgcgJkTj3U

If Broaddus is encouraged by Ward's progress, I am too.

He's going to have a lot of opportunity to get a strangle hold on the 3T defensive tackle spot with Maliek Collins not set to be back until late in training camp, and David Irving suspended the first four games of the 2018 season.

The Dallas Cowboys liked Ward coming out of college and had him just behind Maliek Collins on their 2016 NFL Draft Big Board.

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There's still a lot of practice reps that have yet to take place, but the Dallas Cowboys have gotten some encouraging contributions from these players. As we look to training camp, who will you be watching to see if the stand-out and can make the Dallas Cowboys 53-man roster?



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