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.
WR Randall Cobb Named Cowboys “Surprise Standout” for Offseason
NFL teams have wrapped up their offseason activities with the close of OTAs, especially where the players are concerned, and await the start of training camps next month. In reviewing the last few months, ESPN had their local reporters each pick a surprise standout from their team's practices. Todd Archer, who covers the Dallas Cowboys full time, selected veteran receiver Randall Cobb.
Cobb is in his first season with Dallas after signing as a free agent last March. He's spent the last eight years with the Green Bay Packers and was a Pro Bowler in 2014, but has struggled with injuries the last few seasons.
Here were Archer's observations on how Randall is doing so far with the Cowboys:
Normally a player with Cobb's résumé -- 470 catches for 5,524 yards and 41 touchdowns during his career -- would not be considered for a category like this. But injuries limited him to only nine games and 38 catches for Green Bay in 2018, and it was hard to know what the Cowboys were getting in the veteran receiver.
If the offseason work is any indication, they have found a replacement for Cole Beasley. Cobb's versatility can expand the offense for others, such as Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cobb looked quick in and out of his breaks and fast enough to make plays down the field. Will he put up the 1,287 yards he had in 2014? No, but he gives Dak Prescott a security blanket in the slot who can turn a small gain into a big one.
The notion of Cobb replacing Beasley is a big one. While we'd like to think that Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup will provide plenty of firepower for the Cowboys offense, Dak Prescott has enjoyed a reliable threat from the slot position since he arrived.
Randall Cobb, when healthy, can do more than just make clutch catches. He has good run-after-catch skills and perhaps bring more big play potential than Beasley did.
If Cooper and Gallup do emerge as a dangerous starting duo on the outside, Cobb should have even more opportunities to punish defenses than Beasley did.
If nothing else, it's very encouraging to hear that one of the Cowboys' few 2019 free agent moves is already reaping benefits. Cobb still needs to bring it over a full season to really justify the move, but these early reports are cause for excitement.
BREAKING: Cowboys TE Rico Gathers Receives One-Game Suspension
Tight End Rico Gathers already had an uphill climb to return to the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. But that climb just got even steeper; the NFL handed down a one-game suspension to Gathers today for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If he does make the team this year, with Dallas or anyone else, Rico will have to sit out Week One of the season without pay.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers is suspended without pay for the first game of the 2019 regular season for violating the NFL's policy and program on substances of abuse. This is from his arrest in 2018 for marijuana possession.
Gathers' chances of returning in 2019 were already hurt by Jason Witten's reversed retirement. He dropped to fourth on the TE depth chart behind Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, and Dallas only kept three tight ends last year.
The Cowboys also added Codey McElroy as a developmental player during the offseason.
While the suspension is news, the incident that led to it is not. Dallas already knew about the arrest, which occurred in early September of 2018, and have kept Gathers around up until now.
The NFL's substance abuse system is pretty formulaic, so the Cowboys likely anticipated this suspension all along. This may not change anything about how they value Rico Gathers for the 2019 season.
Nevertheless, a player who can't help you in Week One and is a liability for ever longer suspensions down the road is definitely a red flag against Gathers' job security.
Antwaun Woods: Cowboys DT is Just Getting Started
Antwaun Woods went undrafted in 2016 coming out of USC. After two years with the Tennessee Titans, he would only see one game of action. In May of 2018, the Cowboys signed Woods to a two-year contract worth 1.05 million. Probably seen as nothing more than a practice squad guy, Woods would quickly show he was much more than that.
The newly acquired Woods started his climb to stardom in Oxnard during training camp, and not for making plays. One day during practice he got into a friendly game of fisticuffs with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. The team even posted the video on social media, which had fans buzzing and wanting to know who he was.
All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott echoed those thoughts when he saw Woods during camp. "Honestly, when we first got him, we were like, 'Who is this guy?'. He was giving Travis Frederick, one of our best players, hell all camp. Just trying to figure out where this guy came from," Elliott said.
Once the regular season started it was clear the Cowboys had found a hidden gem. Although the sack numbers won't dazzle you, seeing as he only registered 1.5, you could forget about running the ball anywhere near him. Woods has amazing quickness for a 300 pounder which allows him to extend his arms before offensive lineman can get a hand on him.
How significant is that? It becomes that much easier to bull rush and blow running plays up in the backfield.
When you can get your hands on an offensive lineman immediately when the ball is snapped, he's basically under your control. You can move him around like a puppet on a string. Essential for a 1-technique nose tackle. With that being said, there should be no surprise the Cowboys finished fifth against the run in 2018 with Woods manning the middle.
Woods draws a lot of double teams, and he handles them well. Having the ability to take on multiple linemen frees up your other playmakers. As the anchor in the middle, Woods made life a lot easier for not only his fellow defensive linemen but the team's two young star Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Allowing them to roam freely like Lions in the Serengeti makes running backs essentially Zebra's carrying the ball, cooked food. So much so that both tallied over 120 tackles and were the only teammates in the NFL to rank in the top 15 in that category.
There's nothing but upside with Antwaun Woods. He's only had 18 games of experience in three years. He's already a stud, but with limited snaps, it can only mean he'll be even more formidable going forward.
The Cowboys have a loaded defensive lineman group with around 15 bodies, plenty of competition. All signs point to him remaining the starter, but it's not guaranteed. Even with that being said I don't expect a complacency from Woods, especially with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn looking like the only sure starters on the defensive line. Plus this is a contract year for him, so you know he'll be even more motivated as he tries to maximize his dollars. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from this raw talent, setting up for a potential breakout year for him in 2019.
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