No matter what else happens this offseason, we know that one of Dallas' starting defensive ends in 2016 will be third-year stud DeMarcus Lawrence. After posting seven sacks in his last eight games of 2015, all expectations are that Lawrence will be at least a double-digit sack artist and perhaps make his first Pro Bowl.
I hope you feel really, really good about Lawrence. Because after him, things at defensive end go right off a cliff.
Last year's core group of Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey, and Jack Crawford are all still free agents. Randy Gregory will be suspended for the first four games of next season. That leaves just one player, second-year lineman Ryan Russell, as the only other defensive end to play Week One.
Russell played in one game for Dallas last year. He didn't register a sack or even a tackle. His stat line for 2015 only says “one appearance.” That makes him the football equivalent of a movie director's nephew who got to be “Customer #4” in the background of a restaurant scene.
Clearly, the Cowboys are in a precarious spot with their defensive ends. They can't rely on the draft alone to fill the holes. Even if they added two or three rookies, they are still rookies. It's rare that a rookie pass rusher realizes his potential in his first year. Often they need physical development on top of technique refinement before they're ready to excel as professionals.
What's Left in Free Agency?
Let this sink in. One popular site, WalterFootball.com, has the remaining defensive end talent ranked. Of the top five still unsigned, three are names we know very well: Hardy, Mincey, and George Selvie. The other two are Jason Jones (Lions) and Wallace Gilberry (Bengals), ages 30 and 31 respectively.
That list doesn't include guys who've been playing as 3-4 outside linebackers who would be defensive ends in our scheme. They include veterans like Kroy Biermann, Lamarr Woodley, and O'Brien Schofield. The downside here is that asking an older guy to become a down lineman is the reverse of what tends to happen; older guys moving to the 3-4 to limit contract and prolong their careers.
Take all of this in and there's no question that Greg Hardy is, by far, the most talented and high-upside option left in free agency. However, all signs are that he burned his bridges in Dallas with his conduct and a soured relationship with Jason Garrett.
There have been rumors that Hardy was openly disrespectful and undermining of Garrett in the locker room, which makes sense when you saw how coldly Garrett announced that “Greg Hardy is a free agent” a few weeks back. There is no reason to think, at any level of desperation, Dallas is going to bring him back.
Dallas will surely add some veterans before the draft. Mincey could return and Jack Crawford, though listed as a defensive tackle, has the flexibility to play end if he's brought back. We also know that Tyrone Crawford could play outside if needed, though that would be far from ideal.
Are the Cowboys painting themselves into a corner with the need for defensive ends? When they're on the clock with that fourth-overall pick, will they feel forced to take Joey Bosa or DeForest Buckner regardless of who might be higher on their board? That is the big concern right now.
I don't love Bosa, Buckner, or any other DE prospect with that high pick. I'd much rather see them use it on defensive back Jalen Ramsey, if he's available. If not Ramsey then perhaps it's time to get the quarterback you love or to take running back Ezekiel Elliott, arguably the best talent in the entire draft. However it shakes out, I just loathe the idea of letting superior talent pass you by at other positions in the name of filling a need.
Unfortunately, we may be headed to that very situation. You can't completely dismiss need in the draft and wind up struggling all of next year because you're so thin at defensive end. Even if Lawrence is about to into Reggie White reincarnate, he could still get hurt. Gregory is one toke away from a year-long suspension. This could turn into a disaster very quickly without some more options.
What… do I sound nervous?
You bet I am.