Over the past two seasons, the Dallas Cowboys defense has amassed a whopping 59 total sacks. For perspective, the 2014 Buffalo Bills had 54 sacks on their own and the Denver Broncos Super Bowl 50 winning pass rush had 52 this past season. The need to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been evident in Dallas for a long time, and their most recent big investment towards fixing this has already turned himself into an unstable question mark for 2016. Randy Gregory was the Cowboys second round pick in the 2015 NFL draft. The front office put a lot of trust in the troubled pass rushing product out of Nebraska, and are now facing the reality of playing without Gregory for the first four games of 2016 after another failed drug test led to his suspension.
Collectively, Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Doug Free make up the dominant offensive line for the Dallas Cowboys - the pride and soul of this football team. When Jason Garrett and the Cowboys committed to building this unit, they did so with a run of first round picks that has established Dallas' identity for years to come. However, the Cowboys are going to have to be smart about the way they go about building the sustainability of this offensive line. While most of the guys mentioned above are set in stone, the backups currently on the roster will all be fighting for their spots come training camp. One such player is Chaz Green, who was drafted in the third round by the Cowboys in 2015.
If Dallas Cowboys fans know one thing about Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli, it is that he specializes in taking unproven players with desirable traits and molding them into contributors to his defense. One player that fits this mold is second-year linebacker Mark Nzeocha, who's rookie season was unfortunately cut down due to an injury suffered during his final collegiate season. The 2015 seventh round pick was forced to practically "red shirt" the season, only participating in the off season walkthroughs and the other mental aspects of the game. Now ready to contribute on the field this season, Nzeocha finds himself being thrown into the fire when it comes to competition at the linebacker position. The Cowboys are deep across the board here, with Sean Lee being the only true locked-in starter.
The 2016 training camp for the Dallas Cowboys is approaching quickly, as the team will hit the fields in Oxnard, California late next month. Beginning the process of bettering themselves and shaping the roster for a hopeful return to the NFC's supremacy this season, the summer heat is surely going to bring out some intense competition. As we have seen under Head Coach Jason Garrett, the lower spots on the Cowboys' roster are constantly being battled for by a multitude of players - perhaps with no better example than in this upcoming camp. One position that will force Dallas to make some interesting decisions on the depth chart is the tight end spot, where a lot could happen behind future Hall of Fame inductee Jason Witten. A second-year player that will be looking to take a big step up is Geoff Swaim, who the Cowboys traded a pick for in order to select Swaim with their last selection in 2015 at 246 overall.
The Dallas Cowboys have an embarrassment of riches along their star-studded offensive line. Coming onto the scene in 2014 by springing DeMarco Murray to the league rushing title, the unit that is full of former first round picks, excluding undrafted left guard La'el Collins, has only gotten better, younger, and deeper since then. This past season, with injuries derailing the team's offense by taking out Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, the offensive line still led Darren McFadden to 1,089 yards on the ground - paving paths for the veteran to run through in a man-blocking scheme, which is not their collective strength. McFadden's 2015 performance proved just how talented the Cowboys' line is. A new face along this line was rookie La'el Collins, who replaced the reliable veteran Ron Leary as a starter for 11 games.
It is no secret that the defensive unit for the Dallas Cowboys will be looking for play makers wherever they may come from in 2016. While Cowboys Nation will focus on the offense when it comes to replicating the winning ways of 2014 with rookie Ezekiel Elliott joining the established Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, the defense from that dominant season forced 31 turnovers - good for the second highest total in the league. This "Cowboys Sophomores" series has already profiled a few young defenders that could help Dallas in this regard, such as pass rusher Ryan Russell and hybrid safety Byron Jones. Another player that hopes to add his name to this mix is linebacker Damien Wilson, who was selected in the fourth round by the Cowboys in the 2015 Draft. When it comes to Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli, you can never have enough depth along the front-seven of your defense.
The 2015 Dallas Cowboys did not exactly leave us with many bright spots heading into the off season. Of course, that is not to say that through the fog of a 4-12 campaign there were not players that overwhelmingly stood out and provided some hope for 2016. From their 2015 draft class, first round selection Byron Jones was impressive all season long in the secondary. Drafted out of UCONN mainly because of his off-the-charts athleticism and Combine numbers, Jones was asked to play as an outside corner, inside corner, free safety, and single-high safety all in his rookie season. Byron was always ready for the challenge, sticking to targets in coverage no matter where he was lined up.
When you look at the projected starters for the 2016 Dallas Cowboys on offense, it is difficult to look past QB Tony Romo, WR Dez Bryant, and now rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott. For Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, these are the three players that will most closely determine the success of the Dallas offense. However, a healthy passing duo of Romo and Bryant combined with the rushing attack Elliott will provide certainly opens up opportunities for other players to thrive against unsuspecting defenses. Perhaps no player on the roster fits this role better than Lucky Whitehead at the moment. Signed as an undrafted free agent entering 2015, Whitehead found his role by contributing mostly as a kickoff return specialist early in the year.
There are few players on the Dallas Cowboys that go as under-the-radar as DE Ryan Russell. The state of the team's pass rush has been talked about endlessly this off season, with every single defensive linemen - from the experienced to the inexperienced - being challenged to step up. Ryan Russell certainly hopes to factor into this equation, after being drafted by the Cowboys in 2015 with the 163rd overall pick in the 5th round. Rookie defensive linemen often face a tough adjustment when they come to the NFL, and this was likely going to be especially true for the Purdue University product in Russell. Spending his final two collegiate seasons in a 3-4 defense, Ryan was going to need some serious work with Rod Marinelli to develop into a consistent edge rusher for the Cowboys.