The Cowboys are walking down a path and following footsteps they themselves left behind in 2013.
With a little over a week remaining before the Cowboys lace them up for their first preseason game of 2014, they again have to adjust for injury. Rookie DE Demarcus Lawrence has been diagnosed with a broken bone in his foot and will miss 8-10 weeks due to surgery and recovery time.
Dallas’ suspect defense will now look to regroup quickly and formulate a plan for the season.
At the least, Lawrence was expected to be the Cowboys pass-rush specialist; meaning he’d see the field on passing downs. In past times, that would be limited to about 35-40% of snaps, but in today’s NFL he would probably have seen the field at least 60% of the plays. However, Lawrence was receiving positive reviews for his performance thus far in camp, and was threatening for the starting position at right defensive end.
Of course, Dallas is no stranger to this scenario; having suffered crippling injuries to their defensive roster over the past two seasons and already having lost team leader Sean Lee this offseason. Lee tore his ACL on the first day of OTA’s and is out for the year. The Cowboys played 21 different guys on the defensive line alone in 2013.
The forecast for Lawrence is not as dire, but still a roadblock in the Cowboys plans this year. Dallas traded up within the second round, using their very valuable third-rounder, to get the guy they claimed was the last remaining impact edge rusher in the draft. They said it was imperative because that was a glaring hole in their roster for 2014 and the defense needed “that guy” in order to function properly. Now, they will have to do without him through at least the first month of the season.
Dallas might not miss Lawrence for more than half of the games; but the impact has more reach than that. For a rookie, missing training camp is a big blow to their development as a first-year guy. Ask the team what it feels a lesser scenario robbed them of Morris Claiborne’s potential; and this is a far longer stint on the sideline. Lawrence getting a full month of practice time going up against one of the top left tackles in the game, Tyron Smith, was paramount to his learning curve.
Without that work, there is no way for Lawrence to realize the full potential of his rookie season; no matter what the results end up being. Every player is different, but experience is experience. The team doesn’t spend a month in Oxnard, California because it’s a family vacation. Practice matters.
As always, though, no one feels sorry for a team in the NFL because of injuries. The show goes on and one man's loss is another man's opportunity. Here's a look at the candidates who have a chance to show their true worth with Lawrence sidelined for a few months.
Mincey was signed in the first stint of free agency as a contingency plan if they weren’t able to upgrade the roster in a significant way through the draft. To this point, he has been running with the first team at right defensive end through training camp, and that should continue for the time being. Mincey had his career high in sacks with 11 back in 2011. At times, though, Mincey's dedication has been questioned.
Selvie was a surprise for every Cowboys fan last year as he tallied 7 sacks as Anthony Spencer and Tyrone Crawford’s replacement at strongside defensive end. Many thought that Selvie’s skillset better fit the right side and there is a possibility that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli takes a look at the reclamation project to continue his trajectory on the more important side.
Spencer has been out of action since early in the 2013 season and still isn’t practicing, but recent reports have him looking more ready than expected - reports that include Spence's own words to CowboysHQ. It still is probably a pipe dream that he doesn’t start the season on PUP, as he is still working on being able to cut properly. Microfracture surgery on a knee is no joke. When healthy, however, Spencer is definitely capable of playing the open end side.
Crawford is fully recovered from his 2013 season-ending camp injury, his torn Achilles. However, and despite the versatility he sports that the club loves, Crawford is better suited as a strongside end and interior pass rusher.
Wilson might be the most likely guy to get Lawrence’s snaps, as he was the one to step into his place in the rotation after Lawrence went down in practice. Wilson was able to notch two sacks in yesterday afternoon’s work. Wilson is one of the few players that Dallas held over from last year’s mash unit; signing with the club in late November. This will be his fourth year in the league and he has five career sacks.
Another player that Dallas held over from last season’s defensive line turnstile. Rayford was jettisoned to the team’s practice squad mid-season after being acquired from Indianapolis to start the season. He’s a vet of the CFL and AFL2.
Gardner was the only other pass rusher the team selected in the draft, being a seventh-round selection out of Stanford. Gardner had great production in college, albeit mostly from a 3-4 and as the strongside end with four men down. His knock, and reason he fell to the seventh despite a very intriguing collegiate production ratio, is his very short arms. Whether that works on the open side will be tested. Gardner is battling back from his own shoulder injury.
Free Agency / Trade
The Cowboys could possibly look to bolster their pass rush with help currently not on the roster. Just last week, the team met with free agent Larry English after the former 2009 first-round pick was released by the Chargers. English is still not fully healthy after a torn triceps last year. Dallas. In even exploring this, has chosen to utilize former head coach Bill Parcells’ philosophy that “someone at one time thought this guy was worth a first-round pick.”
The team could also look to package either players from a position of surplus and/or draft picks to try and acquire rush help from another team. That might not happen until the end of camp, however, when teams are certain they have survived the possibility of sustaining their own injuries and are ready to cut said player. They could also get some snaps at end from Kyle Wilber as they grab-bag their way through options.
But this is so: The Cowboys have been here before.