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.
REPORT: Cowboys Visiting With Free Agent S Eric Berry Tuesday
According to Ian Rapoport, the Dallas Cowboys have a meeting scheduled to visit with Free Agent Safety Eric Berry Tuesday at The Star.
Source: Former #Chiefs S and new free agent Eric Berry is visiting the #Cowboys on Tuesday. His first visit. They have a need there...
Eric Berry has spent his entire career with the Kansas City Chiefs after they drafted him fifth overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. After signing Earl Thomas last week, the Chiefs decided to part ways with their former All-Pro Safety.
Berry, 30 is an intriguing free agent for the Dallas Cowboys. When healthy, he is arguably one of the best safeties in the league. Unfortunately, injuries have kept him off the field these last few seasons causing him to only start in only three games since 2016.
This is a move many of us expected to happen after the Cowboys decided not to get into a bidding war for Earl Thomas, a player linked to Dallas for over a year now. In Berry, Cowboys Nation would be getting a similar player with the same kind of red flags. Both Thomas and Berry have to be approached with caution due to their injury history the past few years.
Depending on his asking price, Eric Berry absolutely makes sense for the Dallas Cowboys. He would be an upgrade over Jeff Heath and would pair well with the Cowboys up-and-coming three-year safety Xavier Woods.
This is still just a visit, so we should probably get our hopes up that a signing is imminent. But, I think we can all agree Eric Berry is exactly the "right kind of guy" Jason Garrett is always preaching about. He's a cancer survivor, five-time Pro Bowler, and All-Pro player. What's not to like!?
BREAKING: Dallas Cowboys Signed DE Kerry Hyder
The Dallas Cowboys added more defensive line help today after signing former Detroit Lions Defensive End Kerry Hyder.
Going back to Texas! #CowboysNation
Hyder, 27 originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech with the New York Jets in 2014. He spent a year in New York before signing a future/reserve contract with the Detroit Lions in January 2015.
He had a breakout eight-sack year with the Lions in 2016, but tore his Achilles in 2017 causing him to miss the entire season. In 2018 he had just one quarterback sack after Detroit switched to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
Overall, this is a good depth signing by the Dallas Cowboys. Kerry Hyder has starting potential, but shouldn't keep the Cowboys from upgrading the position further through either another free agent signing for the draft.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Free Agency: Week One Recap
It's been just a week since NFL free agents could begin negotiating with other teams, but it feels like a lifetime for anxious Cowboys fans. Dallas' seemingly passive approach to 2019 free agency has left many disappointed. Still, there are some moves to recap.
As has become their strategy in recent years, the Cowboys have focused on filling up their depth chart and trying to avoid any glaring holes prior to next month's draft. They've re-signed several backups and added at least one likely rotation player.
It's still far too early to judge Dallas' activity. Comparing the 2019 roster to last year will depend heavily on the draft, growth from current players, and other factors. But with the "second wave" of free agency upon us, it's a good time to look at who's come, gone, and stuck around so far.
- TE Jason Witten (unretired)
- TE Codey McElroy (Rams)
- DT Christian Covington (Texans)
The biggest addition so far this offseason wasn't even a free agent, at least not in the purest sense of the term. Jason Witten's surprising return from retirement helped shore up one of Dallas' biggest needs, though it may not preclude them from drafting a tight end high in April.
Also at tight end, Dallas signed developmental project Codey McElroy. His experience is in baseball and basketball, having played just one year of college football. But at 6'6'" and 255 lbs., and having spent last year working with the Rams, the Cowboys must see something they're intrigued by.
Last week Dallas signed Christian Covington, who had 3.5 sacks for Houston in 2018 playing as a 3-4 defensive end. He should move to DT in the Cowboys' scheme and should be a solid addition to their rotation.
- WR Cole Beasley (Bills)
- TE Geoff Swaim (Jaguars)
- DL David Irving (shenanigans)
- LB Damien Wilson (Chiefs)
Beasley is heading to Buffalo on a four-year, $29 million deal. It appeared the relationship soured between Cole and Dallas over his playing time last year, and clearly the Cowboys didn't fight hard to keep him.
Damien Wilson followed Anthony Hitchens to Kansas City to help round out their linebacker corps. Once it was announced that Dallas was hanging on to Sean Lee in 2019, it was fairly certain that Wilson wouldn't be back.
Also not expected back was TE Geoff Swaim, who signed with Jacksonville. Even before Witten came back, Dallas appeared likely to stick with Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz for returning talent and then add an upgrade via free agency or the draft.
While still a free agent, nobody expects David Irving back in Dallas or even the NFL after recent activities. Irving appears focused on a Hollywood career and advocating for medical marijuana use at this point.
- FB Jamize Olawale
- WR Tavon Austin
- WR Allen Hurns (team option)
- OT Cam Fleming
- G/C Joe Looney (team option)
- DE DeMarcus Lawrence (franchise tag)
- DT Daniel Ross (ERFA)
- LB Justin March-Lillard
- S Darian Thompson
While Dallas put the franchise tag on prized pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, his return in 2019 is far from settled. Lawrence has previously sworn he wouldn't play under a second franchise tag this year, and last we heard the two sides are far apart on a long-term deal. Could a holdout be on the horizon?
The Cowboys doubled-down on WR depth by re-signing Tavon Austin and exercising their team option on Allen Hurns' contract. Both are able to play out of the slot, meaning we could see more of a rotation approach to replacing Cole Beasley next year.
Dallas also re-signed fullback Jamize Olawale, which was a surprise given his low usage rate last year. Perhaps the change to Kellen Moore at offensive coordinator was behind this one, hoping to take better advantage of Olawale's receiving skills going forward.
Joe Looney and Cam Fleming will also be back as valuable backups on the offensive line. Looney started 16 games last year at center and also helps at guard, while Fleming will be the swing tackle once again for his second season in Dallas.
On defense, Dallas kept Daniel Ross in their DT rotation after solid performance in 2018. Justin March-Lillard return at linebacker, particularly for his value on special teams. And Darian Thompson, a former third-round pick by the Giants, is back as an ongoing developmental player.
~ ~ ~
If this is any indication, next week's recap may have a lot more to discuss.
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