Editor: What came first … the chicken or the egg? When debating how to build a dominate defense in today’s NFL, this question comes to mind. What’s Rod Marinelli’s first priority … what must come first … the rushmen or the defensive backs? History shows us that a defense can succeed either way. But, the hearts and minds of True Blue fans of the Dallas Cowboys straddle both sides of this fence … with equal conviction.
With the Dallas Cowboys 2015 NFL Draft only days away, it’s time to hunker down and concentrate on those critical areas of needs and roster upgrades!
The 2015 NFL Draft primer series on The Boys Are Back website is extensive. That’s intentional. True Blue’s aren’t your average fair-weather fans … they want to see the whole picture. That’s why this series includes all important variables … who’s already here, who’s in development, who’s left after free-agency, who’s joined the roster, and promising players in the upcoming NFL Draft. I want you to feel informed. That way, when the ‘boys are on the clock, you’ll have a greater understanding of some of those war-room decisions … and how those young men will fit into the overall picture.
Dallas Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones confirmed what everyone has projected for months: The team won’t hesitate to draft defensive line help, whether it’s at end or tackle.
The only departure from last years defensive tackle rotation was veteran Henry Melton. He ended up playing only part-time due to the emergence of Tyrone Crawford at the 3-technique position. The Cowboys are expecting big things from Crawford in his third healthy season, but will likely target another pocket-pushing, athletic lineman on draft weekend.
Here’s a breakdown of the defensive tackle position as it stands right now:
Tyrone Crawford | So much for injuries disrupting Crawford’s development. He rebounded quite nicely from his 2013 torn Achilles tendon and became the team’s most disruptive defensive tackle last year, ranking third on the Cowboys in sacks (3) and second in quarterback pressures (29). Originally a defensive end, he blossomed after the coaching staff moved him to tackle. Crawford took the starting 3-technique job from Melton, and played well enough that the Cowboys declined to pick up Melton’s three-year contract option after the season.
Still Need To Know: Crawford, a third-round pick in 2012, showed moments of dominance in what amounted to his second NFL season after he missed an entire year of development in 2013. Now, can he become a star? The Cowboys think so. A little like Jay Ratliff, who thrived as a nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme years ago, Crawford’s quickness poses problems for interior offensive linemen. Now that he’s played a season at the position that suits him best, Crawford might be ready to break out.
Nick Hayden | The Dallas Cowboys re-signed Hayden to a one-year deal because they value his leadership and effort in the middle of the line. In 2014, he led the Cowboys with 52 tackles and had the second-most tackles for loss (4). Completely out of football in 2012, Hayden has now started 32 straight games and been a glue guy for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Still Need To Know: Will the Cowboys draft someone to compete with Hayden for a starting job? If so, Hayden would remain a key rotation player. What he lacks in pure athleticism he attempts to compensate with tremendous motor. He was a solid run defender last year, anchoring a Dallas unit that yielded only 108.3 yards per game – eighth-fewest in the league. The Dallas Cowboys do need more push from the line’s interior, evidenced by only 28 sacks on defense in 2014.
Terrell McClain | He battled an ankle injury but still managed to appear in 13 games with three tackles for loss as a backup in the rotation. He faced new competition for snaps late in the season when Josh Brent returned from his NFL suspension. As a five-year veteran with some pass-rush ability, McClain has the experience and tools to be a viable part of the group this season.
Still Need To Know: Can he win a job alongside Crawford as the starting 1-technique? McClain has an edge for playing time with his ability to play multiple tackle spots, but he’ll have to win a starting job from Hayden, Brent and possibly a draft pick or free agent who isn’t currently on the roster.
Josh Brent | Brent returned in November from his 10-game NFL suspension and had minimal impact as he worked his way back from a two-year period without football. He appeared in one regular-season game, Week 14 at Chicago, and registered two tackles before missing the final three games with a calf strain. He had two tackles in the two playoff games.
Still Need To Know: Conditioning, not surprisingly, was an issue for Brent following his initial retirement in the wake of the Jerry Brown tragedy, his 180-day jail sentence for his intoxication manslaughter conviction and then his 10-game league suspension. The Cowboys welcomed Brent back and signed him through 2015. It remains to be seen how he performs in training camp following a full offseason with the team. If he can regain the deceptive quickness for his 320-pound frame, he’ll be a tough matchup for opponents.
Roster Watch – –
Ken Bishop | One of five seventh-round picks in the 2014 draft, Bishop appeared in three games to help a depleted defensive line, recording two tackles and a quarterback pressure. The Cowboys signed him off the practice squad for depth in the divisional-round playoff game at Green Bay.
Davon Coleman | An undrafted free agent last year, Coleman finished the season on the practice squad. He was actually the first Dallas Cowboys rookie defensive tackle to start a regular-season opener in 52 years, but he wound up missing half the year due to a strained calf.
Chris Whaley | Whaley also signed as a rookie free agent last year after suffering a torn ACL in his final college season. The Cowboys placed him on the non-football injury list, making 2014 essentially a “redshirt” year for Whaley.
Promising Prospects – Dallas Depth, Cowboy Competition | NFL Draft: DT
Up until the Dallas Cowboys actually use their draft picks, the central story around the franchise will be the 10-game suspension of Greg Hardy.
The NFL’s disciplinary action against Hardy raises a need for pass rushers along the defensive line. The obvious point of emphasis is defensive end, but the Dallas Cowboys 4-3 scheme is also one that generates plenty of push from the defensive tackle spot – specifically the 3-technique.
Three-technique defensive tackles line up between an offense’s guard and tackle, and they are primarily concerned with disrupting the pocket and rushing the quarterback. Tyrone Crawford proved himself particularly adept at the position after switching from defensive end last fall.
Here’s a look at five prospects the Dallas Cowboys could draft into the rotation:
Carl Davis | Iowa – At 6-4, 321 pounds, Davis is absolutely massive, but he has the versatility to play as both a 1-technique and 3-technique. He only managed 3.5 combined sacks in his last two seasons with the Hawkeyes, but he showed his ability to penetrate the line of scrimmage with nine tackles for loss in 2014. There’s bound to be some conversation about where exactly Davis should go, but he could be an option at No. 27 overall – or particularly if the Cowboys trade back.
Eddie Goldman | Florida State – Much like his Seminole teammate Mario Edwards Jr., there aren’t many people who can agree on exactly where Goldman should go. He’s another massive prospect at 6-4, 336 pounds, although he’s projected more as a 1-technique tackle. It’s unlikely the Cowboys would select him 27th, but he could fit in a trade-back scenario – or if he falls down the draft board.
Michael Bennett | Ohio State – As a 28-game starter for the Buckeyes, Bennett has first-round name recognition, but he just might be available when Dallas picks at No. 60. He’s a proven veteran, and he notched 58 tackles, seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss during Ohio State’s championship season.
Xavier Cooper | Washington State – He isn’t as physically gifted as the three guys above him, but Cooper has proven his ability with 23 tackles for loss in two seasons with the Cougars. He also projects better as a 3-technique, pass-rushing tackle, which again is what Dallas is after. It’s anybody’s guess how the Cowboys address their draft board in the early rounds, but Cooper could be there at No. 91 overall.
Rakeem Nunez-Roches | Southern Mississippi – If you’re looking for a sleeper pick at the position, Nunez-Roches might be the one. The Southern Miss junior notched 58 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks last year before declaring for the draft early. He isn’t generating much buzz at 6-2, 307 pounds, with modest combine numbers, but he has shown an ability to rush the quarterback, having recorded seven quarterback hurries in addition to his three sacks. This isn’t a Day 1 starter, but Nunez-Roches could be a rotational guy, and the Cowboys could potentially add him as late as the fifth round.
PRESSURE PROMISING: Lettin’ Lawrence Loose, Mincey Mix & Hardy on Hold
The Dallas Cowboys lost veteran mainstay defensive end Anthony Spencer (who signed with the Rob Ryan’s Saints) and run-stopping veteran George Selvie (signed by the NFC East evil NY Giants). But one free-agency addition could more than make up for their departures.
Greg Hardy is one of the best pass rushers in the game, but will be late to the party with his suspension.
Aside from Hardy, the Cowboys have a couple of key returners back in the mix in Jeremy Mincey and DeMarcus Lawrence, who will need to hold the fort down while Hardy is watching from home.
Let’s look at the entire depth chart of defensive ends.
Jeremy Mincey | While he might have had some character issues in his previous stops at Jacksonville and Denver, Mincey became a locker-room leader for the Dallas Cowboys defense in 2014. One of the team’s pleasant surprises, he also became a key cog in the Cowboys’ pass rush down the stretch. His versatility could allow him to slide to tackle in nickel situations.
Still Need To Know: Like we saw in George Selvie, who took a step backward in his production in 2014 after a seven-sack campaign in 2013, Mincey has to prove he’s more than a one-year wonder in this defense. The difference between the two players is past production. Mincey has produced in other stops, but had some issues with the coaching staff. That hasn’t been the case in Dallas.
Greg Hardy | When he’s on the field, he’s a nightmare for offensive linemen to block. In fact, Hardy rarely sees only one blocker when he’s on the edge, but he’s still produced 27 sacks in his 32 games. Hardy is one of those dynamic rushers who can move to either side or sometimes even line up at the tackle spot to create even more mismatches.
Still Need To Know: For starters, we still need to know exactly how many games Hardy will be suspended once the dust settles on his NFLPA appeal. He’s already missed 15 games from last season, so he’ll have to get back into his groove. Like all players new to the team, he’s got to prove he can not only stay out of trouble, but mesh with his new teammates on and off the field.
DeMarcus Lawrence | We know Lawrence has a feel for the dramatic. While he decided to run with the fumble he recovered in last year’s playoff game against Detroit that led to his own potentially costly fumble, Lawrence redeemed himself with a game-clinching sack and fumble recovery moments later to secure the win. And Lawrence made that sack from the right-end spot, the position the Cowboys pegged him to play when they traded up last year to snag him in the draft. He can play either side and will be asked to do so if he’s lined up opposite of Hardy.
Still Need To Know: There are a lot of things we need to know about the player who missed most of last year with a foot injury. He did come up with a key play in the game against the Lions, and followed it up with another sack against the Packers, but regular-season games are pretty important too, and Lawrence didn’t make a huge impact until the playoffs. Maybe what we saw in the postseason was a sign of things to come; the Cowboys certainly hope so. But the jury remains out for now, although the future definitely looks bright.
Jack Crawford | We know Crawford is more than a guy from London the Cowboys wanted on the roster when they played there last year. He is a legitimate defensive lineman who can play both end and tackle. With a full offseason in Dallas, don’t be surprised if he’s a solid contributor.
Still Need To Know: His position hasn’t been locked down entirely, although he’ll probably start at end. Crawford’s size (6-5, 275) is more than intriguing and allows the Cowboys to put him in different spots. He might not be big enough to handle the pounding inside every play, or quick enough to play on the edge every snap, but he’ll get the chance to figure out what his role might be.
Ben Gardner | Just being drafted alone shows that the Dallas Cowboys saw some traits they liked. Gardner had ability and a high motor when he was healthy at Stanford.
Still Need To Know: He needs to show he can stay healthy before he can show that he can play. Depending on what happens in the Dallas Cowboys 2015 Draft, Gardner should have the opportunity to showcase his skills.
Roster Watch – –
Kenneth Boatright | One of those guys that just kept hanging around last season and eventually landed on the roster for a short time. He excelled in camp and the preseason a year ago and needs to have a repeat performance.
Lavar Edwards | Another guy who went on and off the roster, but has the versatility to play two positions, which intrigued the club enough to keep him for this season.
Efe Obada | Experience is lacking here, but the Dallas Cowboys are taking a chance on a guy with the measureables, giving him plenty of time to develop. Low-risk move with a chance for major upside.
Promising Prospects – Dallas Depth, Cowboy Competition | NFL Draft: DE
The offseason acquisition of Greg Hardy has alleviated at least some of the mid-to-late season concerns about the Dallas Cowboys pass rush – but by no means all of them.
Cowboys defensive ends managed just 11.5 sacks last year, and they lost some of that production when George Selvie left during free agency.
Dallas has a promising trio for 2015 of Hardy, Jeremy Mincey and DeMarcus Lawrence. But even if those three flourish this year, Hardy and Mincey are only under contract for one season. Thinking ahead, defensive end is a position the Dallas Cowboys must look at in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Here are five NFL Draft prospects from the early, middle and late rounds:
Owamagbe Odighizuwa | UCLA – This is the name you’ll likely hear associated with the Cowboys the most, as he was a visitor to Valley Ranch in recent weeks. He’s a standout athlete, and he appears to have recovered from multiple hip surgeries without any problems. It’s a good bet he’ll be in play when the Dallas Cowboys go on the clock with their No. 27 pick.
Danielle Hunter | LSU – Hunter has “project” written all over him. He’s an impressive 6-5, 252 pounds, and he ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. Despite all that talent, he managed just 1.5 sacks in his final season at LSU. He has high upside, but he hasn’t proven he can match potential with production. He may still be on the board when Dallas picks at No. 60.
Frank Clark | Michigan – If it was strictly an on-field decision, Clark would likely be off the board much earlier – he managed 25.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks in his last two seasons. He was dismissed from Michigan’s program in November after he was arrested on domestic violence charges, however. Clark seems to have done enough to answer the off-field questions, but it’s still unsure when his name will be called. He could go as high as the third or fourth round.
Markus Golden | Missouri – Shane Ray is the Missouri defensive end who draws most of the attention. Golden notched 10 sacks last year as a member of the Tigers’ rotation at defensive end. He’s a bit undersized at just 6-2, but he could be a good mid-round addition – perhaps the fourth round.
Chuka Ndulue | Oklahoma – Ndulue might not even hear his name called during the draft. He’s a Dallas native and the Dallas Cowboys are sure to have an eye on him. He’s built at a stocky 288 pounds, and he managed 12 sacks during his Sooner career. The Cowboys have two seventh-round picks and could take a late flyer on him.
WAR-ROOM STRATEGY: With Hardy on hold … how will the draft unfold?
Let’s remove the “what ifs” and deal with what we know about Greg Hardy’s situation right now.
The NFL has suspended Hardy 10 regular-season games for conduct detrimental to the league. By their ruling, Nov. 26 is the first time Hardy will wear a Dallas Cowboys uniform in a game that counts in the standings.
He might eventually win an appeal that reduces his suspension. He might not. No one can say for sure. It’s a complex case involving a league investigation that we in the general public weren’t privy to – period.
Point is, right now the Cowboys can pencil him in for only six meaningful games, and by Nov. 26, 2015, he’ll be more than 14 months removed from regular-season action, having last played on Sept. 14, 2014 as a member of the Carolina Panthers.
Should that change the Dallas Cowboys draft strategy?
Certainly not 180 degrees. The top three position needs, in no particular order, have been the same since January. Poll your grandma. Bet she can list them: cornerback, running back and defensive line – namely, pass rush for a defense that tallied only 28 sacks last year.
Last Wednesday’s Commissioners ruling up’s the Dallas Cowboys urgency for an impact pass rusher … and not just a smidgen.
They expected a Hardy suspension when they signed him to an incentive-laden one-year deal in mid-March. Jerry Jones said as much in his statement. But now it’s here, and it’s significant.
In this situation, ten games isn’t really 10 games. Factoring in rust and conditioning, players usually need time to round into form after their return from that long a layoff. Think how long it took fellow defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence after missing 13 games with a broken foot last year, preseason included. Or Josh Brent last year after two years away from the game. Or Bruce Carter in 2011 after a 10-game absence, preseason included.
Per the league’s statement, Hardy can continue to participate in the team’s voluntary offseason program, working toward his $1.3 million roster bonus. He can take part in 2015 Dallas Cowboys training camp and preseason, likely taking more reps than the average veteran with a Pro Bowl on his résumé.
Starting Sept. 5 when his suspension begins, he sits.
The Cowboys will need a Hardy Plan B, as it stands right now, for the vast majority of the season.
They have Lawrence, the 2014 second-rounder who showed flashes in the playoffs. They have 2014 sack leader Jeremy Mincey. But they don’t have rotation guys Anthony Spencer and George Selvie anymore. Maybe the most masterful part of Rod Marinelli’s coaching job last year was how he squeezed contributions out of several different players.
The Cowboys were expected to take a defensive lineman at some point on draft weekend even before Wednesday’s news, and that certainly seems likely now. Problem is, immediate-impact pass rushers are hard to find at the bottom of the first round or later. Lawrence didn’t contribute much last year, mostly due to injury.
The best thing they can do is do exactly what they did last year in the first round with Zack Martin: Stay as true to their board and pick who they think is the best guy based on months and months of collectively exhaustive research. Reaching at the end of the first round isn’t nearly as much of a sin as the early first round, but it’s still a mistake.
If the best guy available is a cornerback, fine.
Running back, fine.
Defensive tackle, fine.
Hardy won’t help them anytime soon during the 2015 season, but the league made its ruling. Better for the front office to draft high-quality players for other position needs than make a desperate grab to fill a hole they knew would be there all along – just not how long.
THE ‘TWEENER FREAK FACTOR: Eli Harold may fit Marinelli’s 4-3 scheme
Eli Harold | Defensive End/Outside Linebacker | Virginia | 6-3/247 | Age: 21
Honors: Harold led the Cavaliers in tackles for loss and sacks in 2014, earning himself a second-team All-ACC selection.
Key stat: The Virginia native didn’t miss a single start in his final two seasons for UVA, and he combined for 15.5 sacks in those two years. Even more impressive is his ability to tackle ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage. He combined for 36.5 tackles for loss in two seasons.
Projected: Harold is one of the top names in the handful of “tweeners” that intrigue draftniks every single spring. Whether he plays in a 3-4 or a 4-3, his athleticism has him projected to go in the first 40 picks – either the late first or early second round. He’s not as highly-regarded as fellow tweeners Vic Beasley and Bud Dupree. It’s a decent bet he’ll be there when Dallas picks at No. 27, but no guarantee.
Cowboys fit: It’s always a matter of debate with tweeners, but there are plenty of draft evaluators who think Harold plays his best with his hand on the ground. He’ll undoubtedly need some time to grow and develop, but he’d be another young, athletic pass rusher to add to the rotation along with DeMarcus Lawrence. That could be crucial, given that Greg Hardy and Jeremy Mincey aren’t under contract past 2015.
Scouting Report: Will normally line up as the right defensive end. Explodes up the field. Really quick out of his stance. Has all the tools to be an outstanding edge player. I thought he needed to be more consistent from snap-to-snap. Not sure that he always has a plan when he rushes the passer, but there are rushes where you know that he gets it. Would like to see him with more pass rush moves than just relying on his natural ability. When he can get his shoulder past the blocker, he has a chance to cause some problems. Best two moves were his spin and arm over. Could tell that’s what he went to when he wanted to get pressure. Thought there was a time or two where he played too tall out of his stance and he gave up his chest to the blocker and he wasn’t strong enough to get away from the blocker. When he would rush, dip his shoulder and bend, he was a much better player. Was also able to get some push when he used his quickness to get underneath his man. Very quick on the inside charge. Plays the run surprisingly well. Will extend his hands to control the blocker. Has some punch in them. Will play with leverage. Can hold his ground when dealing with down and trap blocks. Was a hot and cold player when it came to chasing the ball from the backside. Has the ability to do it, but he just wasn’t as consistent as he needed to be do it. The Florida State game was tough for him in the way that they handled him. Didn’t win many of the battles in that game as they wore him down. In physically seeing the player during his visit to Dallas, he appears to have added more weight to his frame which will no doubt help his game.
Decide for yourself: Check out the NFL Draft Prospects page on The Boys Are Back!