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!
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.
Top 5 Offseason Priorities for the Dallas Cowboys
The 2018 NFL Season has come to an end for the Dallas Cowboys and now the team looks to the offseason to gear up for what should be another run toward the playoffs in 2019. As with every team heading into every offseason, they'll have some difficult decisions to make with some of their own players as well as deciding how they want to attack free agency and the draft.
The Cowboys have drafted really well over the last three seasons in particular, but have had a long track record of success in the Jason Garrett era. How we judge the draft this season should take into account what Amari Cooper has been to this team. He's been everything the Dallas Cowboys hoped for when they sent their 2019 first round draft pick to the Oakland Raiders for Cooper. The Cowboys, without a first round pick, will have less room for maneuvering around the draft, but as we've seen in the past, they are just as effective in the second round and beyond as they are in the first round.
As we get going in the offseason, let's look at the Dallas Cowboys 5 Most Pressing Priorities.
1. Dealing with DeMarcus Lawrence
The NFL is a passing league. You need players who can throw the ball and catch the ball. On the defensive side of the ball, you must have guys that can get after the passer and cover the receiver.
After moving to the 4-3 defense and the departure of DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys struggled to find any pass rushing consistency at the defensive end position. They were led at the position by players like Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie, and Benson Mayowa. Finally, the Cowboys selection of DeMarcus Lawrence is paying off has he's had double-digit sacks each of the last two seasons and has been equally effective against the run.
The Cowboys have the option of using the franchise tag on Lawrence again this offseason, which is a possibility as it would prevent other teams from negotiating with the Cowboys best defensive player. While the Cowboys need to continue to build the team through the draft and extend a few players, there isn't a bigger offseason priority than getting DeMarcus Lawrence's deal done.
Jason Garrett on soon-to-be free agent DeMarcus Lawrence: He's certainly as big a priority as there is
2. Making Big Adjustments to the Offense
There was a lot of consternation yesterday at the comments Jason Garrett made to 105.3 The Fan in Dallas-Fort Worth about Scott Linehan's future with the team. It's obviously a possibility that he returns in 2019, but as Stephen Jones mentioned later in the day, it's too early to begin discussing those things as they haven't really began to review the season.
Scott Linehan has been good as an offensive coordinator and he's been a part of Dak Prescott's progression, but there are certain areas of this offense that need to be reworked or shaken up. Whether the Cowboys decide to move on from Linehan or they decide to make adjustments to the scheme, something needs to change. In particular, the team's insistence on using jumbo packages on every short yardage situation has made them predictable.
On 4th and 1 on Saturday, the team went to the Ezekiel Elliott in jumbo formations one too many times. In an era when most of the NFL is attempting to spread things out with 11 and 10 personnel, the Cowboys continue to force two and three tight end formations.
This offseason is just getting started and the Cowboys have a lot of decisions to make about their offense, but none is bigger than figuring out who the play caller is going to be. While the team may be publicly supporting Scott Linehan at the moment, it would be highly unlikely for the team to bring him back for another year.
3. Continue Building the Wide Receiver Corp
The Dallas Cowboys began the process of overhauling the wide receiver corp last offseason when they released Dez Bryant, signed Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, drafted Michael Gallup and Cedric Wilson, and traded for Tavon Austin and most importantly Amari Cooper.
Generally, when the Dallas Cowboys have attempted to rebuild a position, they've done it over a few seasons, like they did with the offensive line, the defensive line, and the linebackers.
This offseason, the Cowboys will have a few decisions to make at the wide receiver position. Do they bring back Cole Beasley? What about Tavon Austin? Allen Hurns would have likely been a player the Cowboys could have used in the slot to replace Cole Beasley, but he's hurt and possibly won't be ready for training camp.
On offense, the passing game began to take shape in the second half of the season as Dak Prescott began to get more comfortable with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. They'll make a nice 1-2 punch heading into 2019, but there is still room for adding a player or two. Depending on the type of contract he'd want, it would be great to bring back Cole Beasley. It's become clear that he's not as big of a focal point in the offense since Amari Cooper has emerged, but he's still a good player that can make some big catches for you.
If the team looked to the draft, one player that is high on my list is Oklahoma Wide Receiver Marquise Brown. He's a home run hitter in every stretch of the imagination. With speed for days, he could be the field stretcher that the team has struggled to find. Not only does he have speed, he's an excellent route runner and has excellent hands and spends the offseason training with Steelers Wide Receiver and cousin Antonio Brown.
If the Cowboys wanted to go the free agency route to add a wide receiver, they should look at Jamison Crowder of the Washington Redskins or Adam Humphries of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to fill their slot wide receiver role. If you remember back to the Bucs game, Humphries was giving the Cowboys fits totaling 10 catches on 12 targets for 79 yards. Crowder struggled with injuries this season and had a down year, but that could mean he'd be cheap to sign, which is the way the Dallas Cowboys do free agency.
There are some nice players in the draft and free agency that the Cowboys could look to add to their wide receiver group, but they'll also be getting back Cedric Wilson, their sixth round pick from last season. The team really liked the production that Wilson had at Boise St. and Wilson was playing well in training camp and was pushing for a roster spot before his season ending injury.
Noah Brown is also a player in line to see more snaps moving forward. He's played well when called upon, using his superior blocking to make an impact in the running game while displaying nice route running and hands in the passing game. If Cole Beasley didn't return to the Cowboys this offseason, I could see the Cowboys giving Brown an expanded role on the outside or using him as a big slot receiver, similar to how the Arizona Cardinals use Larry Fitzgerald or how the New Orleans Saints use Michael Thomas. He has the size to be a mismatch for slot corners and the route running to be a mismatch for linebackers. They could also use Brown on the outside, put Cooper in the slot and then when they want to use Brown as a blocker, could motion him in-line.
Wide receiver will be a big question this offseason as teams must have three or four solid receivers to run their offense. The Cowboys have some players that could be given expanded roles, but should continue to add to the position through the draft.
Most of 2018 was spent discussing the possibility of trading for Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas, and I imagine that much of this offseason will be spent discussing him again. If you got tired of Earl Thomas talk last year, get ready, it's about to pick up.
Earl Thomas will be a free agent this offseason, so he'll be free to sign with any team he chooses and he's made it known that he'd like to play for the Dallas Cowboys. There are several question marks when it comes to Earl Thomas that the Cowboys will have to consider.
When will he be ready to go? What kind of money will he demand? Has health become a concern?
All legitimate questions for a player that will be coming off a broken leg suffered this season. He should be ready for offseason training as there have been videos posted to his Instagram showing him running stadiums. If he's ready to roll by free agency and is able to pass his physical, I bet they take another long look at adding him to the roster.
They have another free agent option that they can look into though in New York Giants Safety Landon Collins. He's a different type of safety than Earl Thomas, but Collins is a player. He's more of a "box" or strong safety that you could use to play the Jeff Heath role, which would leave Xavier Woods playing the free safety spot.
5. Defensive Tackle
Antwaun Woods, Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, Caraun Reid, and Daniel Ross played well for the Dallas Cowboys defense, but as we saw on Saturday night against the Los Angeles Rams, they were lacking as a group. In Woods, Collins, and Crawford, you feel good with what you have as you approach free agency and the draft, but they need to add a player that can help them with their interior pass rush.
Much of the pass rush that the Cowboys received this season came from their defensive ends and linebackers. The tackles were good, but inconsistent in their ability to collapse the pocket and not allow any room for opposing quarterbacks to step into.
This is a draft that is deep on defense and the Cowboys will have a chance to add to their defensive tackle spot with their second round pick. With Rod Marinelli likely returning to the Dallas Cowboys next offseason, we know his ability to find diamonds in the rough. I wouldn't be surprised if they go practice squad diving again this offseason and find a player that can have a significant impact like David Irving did in 2017 and Antwaun Woods did in 2018.
It's unlikely that David Irving will be back and Tyrone Crawford could be a cap casualty if the Cowboys no longer want to carry his $10 million cap number.
The Cowboys are likely to bring back DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory is still under contract, as well as Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong. They are pretty solid at defensive end, but could still add a player to compete with Taco and Armstrong. Defensive tackle though, is a place where they need to make a move to upgrade the position. The defense was really good last season, but needs to look for ways to improve heading into 2019.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
The Dallas Cowboys will do as they always do this offseason as they approach the roster; sign inexpensive veterans with the hope that they outperform their contracts and attempt to draft well yet again. It's a formula that has worked for them and there's no reason to think it won't continue moving forward.
Dallas Cowboys Re-Sign OL Coach Marc Colombo Through 2019
Hiring six new positional coaches and a special teams coordinator prior to the 2018-19 season, the Dallas Cowboys saw plenty of success with this turnover - rebounding from a 3-5 start to reach the Divisional Round before having their season end at the LA Rams. At arguably their most important position, the Cowboys admitted to hiring the wrong fit when Paul Alexander was fired mid-season. Very fortunately, Alexander's assistant was ready to step up and become one of the most respected coaches on the staff, with former Cowboys Tackle Marc Colombo receiving a new contract as OL Coach through next season.
The team announced that Colombo would return on Tuesday. The day prior, Head Coach Jason Garrett said he expects Center Travis Frederick to be ready for the entirety of the offseason program. The two-time 1st Team All-Pro missed the entire season dealing with Gillian-Barre Syndrome.
Source: Cowboys have signed offensive line coach Marc Colombo to a new contract
There's still work to be done this offseason for the Cowboys to maintain their usual standard on the offensive line. Just days removed from the end of the season, in which the Cowboys became the first playoff squad since 1988 to start all players under the age of 30, the Dallas OL is in great position and should remain an overwhelming strength under Colombo.
With Joe Looney set to return to a backup role and Xavier Su'a-Filo under contract, even the Cowboys depth up front is built up nicely well before free agency or the Draft. Cam Fleming and Marcus Martin are the Cowboys offensive linemen with expiring contracts.
The Cowboys averaged 136.9 rush yards per game under Alexander, who introduced an unfamiliar scheme to established veterans like Tyron Smith and Zack Martin. Alexander's time as the Cowboys OL Coach also stunted the growth of rookie Left Guard Connor Williams, who finished the season strong once returning to the starting lineup.
The Cowboys allowed 56 sacks this season, 23 of which (41%) came in the six games under Alexander. Colombo had served as Alexander's assistant, believed to be a candidate to run his own OL room at some point.
When that opportunity came sooner than expected, the Cowboys brought back former offensive line coach Hudson Houck to assist Colombo.
A projected starting lineup of Smith, Williams, Frederick, Martin, and La'el Collins is what Colombo and Houck will have to look forward to when the Cowboys offense takes the field in 2019 - along with rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott and fourth-year Quarterback Dak Prescott.
Colombo described himself as the "luckiest guy on the planet," when asked about his opportunity to continue coaching with his former team.
Leighton Vander Esch To Top Rookie Season With Pro Bowl Trip
Dallas Cowboys' rookie Leighton Vander Esch has done enough to prove every single doubter wrong. When Roger Goodell called his name during the 2018 NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas, many in Cowboys Nation rejoiced at the thought of having a young linebacker for a defense surrounded with uncertainty. However, many analysts doubted the draft pick. For a lot of people (sadly, I include myself in this category), the pick should've been used on another player. For most, despite acknowledging his raw talent, Vander Esch wouldn't be able to provide the Cowboys with an instant impact player. Ah, well.
After a remarkable season, Vander Esch (a.k.a. Wolf Hunter) has earned a spot on this season's second-team All-Pro. When the Pro Bowl voting began, Vander Esch was snubbed from the ballot itself. It didn't took the NFL long to realize their mistake and add the Cowboys' linebacker to the list. Despite missing the cut at first, Vander Esch will be heading to Orlando to play in this year's Pro Bowl on January 27th.
DallasCowboys linebacker @VanderEsch38 has been added to the 2019 Pro Bowl Roster. 🐺 Congratulations, rookie! → https://t.co/AYqEUy2tZx
The former Boise State Bronco will be replacing Carolina Panthers' LB Luke Kuechly, who won't be participating because of an injury.
Vander Esch racked up 140 tackles (per Pro Football Reference), ranking third in the league in this category. He finished the season as the fifth best linebacker in Pro Football Focus' rankings.
But numbers aren't really enough to fully appreciate what Vander Esch did for the Dallas Cowboys. A team that was used to seeing its defense break when veteran Sean Lee went down injured, did not only get someone to fill in for Lee. Vander Esch actually upgraded the Cowboys' defense. It didn't matter where the ball went, he was always around when opponents were tackled. His speed and chance of direction allowed him to run sideline to sideline, covering a huge portion of the field.
Along Jaylon Smith, Dallas managed to have one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.
The last time a defensive rookie from the Cowboys went to the Pro Bowl was in 1981, when Everson Walls made the team. Vander Esch is the 11th rookie in team history to be selected to the Pro Bowl. This year, the rookie will be accompanied by DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Ezekiel Elliott.
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