Cowboys Free Agency: Finding The Rush

Dallas needs help in the pass-rush department... but where the Cowboys can and can't get it might change your line of thinking as the offseason pushes forward. A top-6 look at free agency:

Anyone who watched the 2014 Dallas Cowboys play knows, the number one area that could stand to improve in 2015 is the pass rush. This has many looking at the very deep class of Edge pass rushers in the 2015 NFL draft wondering which prospect will hear their name called at the 27th pick in the draft (or elsewhere, depending on the actions of Trader Jerry and his crew), and will wear the star on their helmet.

However, as has been documented here at CowboysHQ before, pass rushers drafted in the top 100 picks since 2005, have averaged a paltry 2.8 sacks in their rookie seasons, (first rounders are only slightly better, averaging 3.8 sacks in year one). Which means, if the Cowboys want to upgrade their pass rush significantly in 2015, it will need to come from two areas, A) Internal player development, and B) outside free agent acquisitions.

Since the development of current players will remain a complete unknown until late July when they strap the pads on in Oxnard for training camp, we will focus here on free agents.

The term thrown around by members of the Cowboys front-office, and staff regarding the pass rush, is that they need a player who can “command a double team”, which frees up the rest of the linemen to rush one on one, giving them their best opportunity to win. This is what is truly missing from Rod Marinelli’s group of rushmen, and what will allow the defense to take the next step.

As a rule there are very few of these catalytic rushers available, and very few of them make it to free agency, in fact I count only a handful of players who could be true difference makers at the defensive end position for the Cowboys in 2015.

JUSTIN HOUSTON

Prior Team: Kansas City

Age for 2015 Season: 26

Drafted: 3rd round (70th overall) in 2011 – Kansas City

2014 Statistics: 22 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in 16 starts (1,033 snaps)


Houston is very clearly the cream of the free agent crop, and one of the top 2 or 3 pass rushers in the NFL as exhibited by his 22 sacks in 2014 and 43 since 2012. He would be the ultimate upgrade to the Cowboys defensive front, and adding him to play defensive end would make the Cowboys pass rush instantly formidable. Word out of Kansas City is that the Chiefs intend to use the franchise tag on Houston if they cannot reach a long-term deal by March 2nd, however, with just over $1 million in cap space, it will take some maneuvering to fit the $13+ million cap hit for an outside linebacker.

JASON PIERRE-PAUL

Prior Team: New York Giants

Age for 2015 Season: 26

Drafted: 1st round (15th overall) in 2011 – NY Giants

2014 Statistics: 12.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in 16 starts (959 snaps)


Pierre-Paul was selected as a raw athletic specimen in the first round of the 2010 draft, and was added to the Giants seemingly never ending staple of pass rushers in 2010, and really exploded onto the scene in 2011 with 16.5 sacks in only 12 starts. He has struggled some with injuries the last couple of seasons, but really came on strong at the end of 2014, recording 9 sacks in the Giants final 5 games showing that he still possesses the ability to get after the QB in bunches.

He, like Houston, is a prime candidate for the franchise tag, and the Giants have the cap space (just over $17.5 million) to absorb the nearly $15 million defensive end franchise tag, however allocating that much to one player will certainly force the Giants to make decisions about other free agents (Antrelle Rolle, Walter Thurmond, etc).

JERRY HUGHES

Prior Team: Buffalo Bills

Age for 2015 Season: 27

Drafted: 1st round (31st overall) in 2010 – Indianapolis Colts

2014 Statistics: 10 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in 16 starts (782 snaps)


Jerry Hughes is an intriguing player who was selected in the first round of the draft by the Colts, but never really caught on there, and was traded following the 2012 season after one season playing out of position as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He flourished in 2013 as a pass rush specialist and in 2014 he took the step to being a full time starter and has accumulated 20 sacks in the last two years.

Most people around Buffalo do not believe the Bills will place the franchise tag on Hughes considering the significant investment they have in Mario Williams, and former first rounder Marcell Dareus in the last year of his contract. Which means that Hughes will be considered by most teams to be the premier edge rusher available in free agency in 2015.

GREG HARDY

Prior Team: Carolina Panthers

Age for 2015 Season: 27

Drafted: 6th round (175th overall) in 2010 – Carolina

2014 Statistics: 1 sack and 1 forced fumble in 1 start (51 snaps)


Greg Hardy is an extremely good football player, with very heavy clouds surrounding him as he enters free agency. He missed 15 games in 2014 after being charged with Domestic Violence, and spent the year on the Commissioners exception list (paid suspension). If not for his off field issues, he would be a highly sought after player. However, it will be interesting to see just how strongly NFL teams stand against this type of situation when it involves a player of Hardy’s caliber.

Even with the charges against him dropped, he is still subject to potential league discipline, and will likely come with an inordinate amount of outside attention to any team that signs him. I don’t believe the Cowboys will have much interest.

BRANDON GRAHAM

Prior Team: Philadelphia Eagles

Age for 2015 Season: 27

Drafted: 1st round (13th overall) in 2010 – Philadelphia

2014 Statistics: 5.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in 1 starts (499 snaps)


Brandon Graham was drafted very highly in 2010 when the Eagles were playing an aggressive 4-3 defensive front, and was showed signs that he would grow to be a big part of the Philadelphia pass rush. However, as things fell apart for Andy Reids’ regime, and Chip Kelly took over bringing a 3-4 defensive front with him, it pushed Graham out of position to outside linebacker.

In 2014 he served as a designated pass rusher, playing behind both Connor Barwin and Trent Cole, however he was able to notch 5.5 sacks in limited time, and looks to be a guy who could produce double digit sacks as a full time defensive end in a 4-3 front (which the Cowboys happen to deploy). He has stated that he is seeking a 4 year contract for just over $7 million a season, which is something the Cowboys should easily be able to accommodate (if they so choose).

PERNELL MCPHEE

Prior Team: Baltimore Ravens

Age for 2015 Season: 26

Drafted: 5th round (165th overall) in 2011 – Baltimore

2014 Statistics: 7.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble in 0 starts (516 snaps)

Pernell McPhee played a similar role with the Ravens, that Brandon Graham played with the Eagles, playing limited snaps behind vaunted rushers Terrell Suggs, and Elvis Dumervil, and like Graham, he projects very well as a full time rusher in a 4-3 front.



There you have it, six potential difference making pass rushers who could be available in 2015. With Houston, and Pierre-Paul both likely to be tagged, that leaves four edge rushers available in free agency, with three of them likely targets for the Cowboys as they look to push the team to the next level in 2015.




Onside Kicks

*Some deals are easy; it's why Ron Leary and Darrion Weems are back under contract this week, exclusive-rights guys who will make $585,000. Ron Leary on a one-year deal for $585,000 continues to make him look like quite a find.

*Some deals are hard; which brings us to Dez vs. the Joneses, who will lose this case in the court of public opinion, Dez' "devotion'' (not to mention his NFL-best 56 TDs since the start of the 2010 season) serving the basis for his "defense.'' And the "prosecution''? It cannot be argued that Bryant is anything short of a top-five (or top-three) receiver, or that Bryant as a "behavioral risk,'' if it's an issue at all, cannot be mitigated by the structure of the Cowboys' long-term deal with him. (An example of details here, along with how to add other talent around Dez.)

Maybe that's why, when the media at the Scouting Combine in Indy circled back to Stephen following Dez' tweet (suggesting he's more loyal to the Cowboys than they are in return) and apparently mentioned "bad vibes,'' the COO took a softer stab at this, saying, "Well, he's not feeling the right vibes, then. We feel strongly about him. We worked hard to do a long-term deal with him, and we'll continue to work hard at it. If we don't get one, then (the tag) just shows him how much we care about him (that) we don't want to expose him."

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CowboysHQ.com wrote on Monday of Dallas and Bryant being so close to a contract in October that, according to sources, some of the ancillary paperwork was being worked up inside Valley Ranch.

Fish's column here on the "Dez vs. Cowboys Counterpunch'' notes that the two sides can be close again. We remain convinced "close'' will become "closed'' in terms of a long-term deal by the next deadline of July 15. What is clear today? It won't get close or closed without the not-entirely-necessary posturing, pouting and the swinging of verbal hammers.

* CowboysHQ.com brings you "10 FishTips.''

*The Cowboys have done it before and won with it. The Patriots do it ... and just won the Super Bowl. With respect to DeMarco, we present the notion of Cowboys running back by committee - along with proof that it works.

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*CowboysHQ.com's We'll help your kids to to Jason Witten's camp!

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