When free agency began, the top edge rushers flew off the shelves immediately. Cowboys fans watched Mario Williams, Charles Johnson, Olivier Vernon and the like get snatched up one by one. It even happened with second-level guys like Cowboys target Adrian Clayborn, who re-upped with Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are in desperate need of DE help with Demarcus Lawrence coming off back surgery, Randy Gregory serving a 4-game suspension and Greg Hardy’s stint with the team coming to an end.
Cowboys fans shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that the Cowboys didn’t spend big in free agency. They haven’t taken that approach in quite some time so there’s no reason to believe they’d change that this season. However, that doesn’t mean fans aren’t upset about it - and with good reason.
One thing that nearly every Super Bowl-winning team has in common is a dominant (or at the very least, extremely consistent) pass rush - something the Cowboys lack.
Finding someone who can consistently pressure QB’s off the edge might be the No. 1 need for this team. At this point, there aren’t a lot of options left, though. Chris Long is scheduled to visit with the Cowboys this week (and is in New England today) but he is almost 31 and is coming off arguably the least productive season of his career. The Cowboys could attempt to trade for a DE but that could get very pricey. Then there’s the draft, which has one of the weakest edge-rush classes in recent memory.
Even if it was a strong class, rookie pass rushers average less than three sacks in their first year. So, how are the Cowboys going to pressure opposing QB’s?
While the Cowboys have yet to sign a DE this offseason, they did ink former Philadelphia Eagles lineman Cedric Thornton. Thornton (6-4 and 309 pounds) is an immediate upgrade at the 1-tech spot that has been held down by Nick Hayden for three seasons. Hayden was loved by his teammates and coaches due to his motor but fans have been calling for an upgrade for quite some time. Thornton is bigger, stronger, younger and more athletic than Hayden. He’s one of the top run defenders among interior defensive linemen and will play a big part in improving the Cowboys 22nd-ranked run defense.
But how will he impact the pass rush?
If you look up Thornton’s stats, he’s only recorded one sack in each of his four NFL seasons, something a lot of fans have pointed out to me when expressing their concern with the signing. However, Thornton wasn’t brought here to get sacks himself. He was brought here to help other players get sacks. Thornton doesn’t show up on the stat sheet much but his presence is felt on the field. He consistently disrupts the pocket and is capable of taking on double teams. All of that will free up Tyrone Crawford, who should be able to take advantage and put up some big numbers at the 3-Tech spot. With Thornton playing next to him, I could easily see Crawford recording eight-plus sacks in 2016 - especially after a full offseason for his shoulder to heal up. ... which would be reminiscent of what Jason Hatcher once did here in the same role.
Still, this doesn’t solve the defensive end issue right? No, it doesn’t. But, stellar play from your defensive tackles can help mask the lack of an elite rusher on the outside. If the Cowboys re-sign Jack Crawford as is the plan, they’ll have a DT rotation of Crawford/Crawford at the 3-tech and Thornton/McClain at the 1-tech - and that’s not even mentioning David Irving and a potential draft pick in an extremely deep DT class. If those guys can consistently disrupt the front of the pocket and prevent QB’s from climbing up, they’ll be forced outside, right into the arms of the defensive ends. Great DT play can make good DE play look great, too.
The Panthers are a prime example of this theory. In 2013, the Panthers selected 2 DT’s in the first two rounds of the draft to solidify their defensive line. Since then, those DT’s have helped give them one of the best defenses in the NFL. Only five teams had more sacks than the Panthers in 2015 and their sack leader was DT Kawann Short (11). The most sacks than any Panthers DE had was six from Mario Addison. If the Cowboys DT’s can play at a similar level, they should be able to survive without a dominant DE that records 10-15 sacks.
Don’t get me wrong. If the Cowboys find a way to grab a top-tier edge-rusher, I’m all for it. Every team is better with one of those. Joey Bosa can be drafted at No. 4 if Dallas prefers (see tons of Bosa info here), and then the edge rusher is Lawrence, who emerged last year with eight sacks playing left end. His numbers will explode further if he's the right end.
Same concept if Long signs with Dallas (and know that this visit is his idea): that's one more and with skins on the wall that would help Dallas piece together a hopefully productive rush. ... with Long trying to recapture what he was from 2010 to 2013 he totaled 41.5 sacks for the Rams.
However, the Cowboys don’t NEED an elite DE to be a top 10 defense in 2016. As long as the DE’s can be disciplined and take advantage of opportunities given to them when the DT’s push QB’s their way, this defense has a chance to take a big step forward next season.
Meanwhile, we have a fresh CowboysCast to scratch that football itch of yours.
To kick off the program, Bobby Belt is joined by CowboysHQ’s Jordan Ross as the two of them welcome Cowboys receiver Brice Butler. Brice shared his thoughts on a whirlwind 2015, what he hopes to accomplish moving forward, and his real off-the-field passion: music.
Brice also takes Cowboys Nation behind the scenes and let them know about Cole Beasley’s propensity to rap a few bars for his teammates.
One of the biggest questions heading into free agency is about the pass rush. As any reader of CowboysHQ is aware, the plan calls for Greg Hardy to not be back in Dallas and meanwhile Randy Gregory is suspended for the first four games of next year. Bobby and Jordan kick around the subject and wonder if pass-rush help will be coming through the form of bargain shopping in free agency (in the form of maybe Eagles defensive lineman Cedric Thornton, with Adrian Clayborn staying in Atlanta) or with the No. 4 pick in the draft.
Finally, Mike Fisher joins Bobby for a jam-packed segment to discuss the Cowboys’ free agency strategy. ... or what some unhappy fans might say is a lack thereof. (Some Broncos fans probably agree.) Fish has the very latest from Valley Ranch on the DeMarco Murray trade discussions, where the Cowboys might be looking for defensive help for the just-re-upped Rolando McClain and company, and what might be in the works in the form of "Moore'' and "Moore'' at backup quarterback. Oh, and what's this DeMarcus Ware stuff Fish has been talking about on 105.3 The Fan and writing about at CowboysHQ.com?
It's all here! We at CowboysHQ.com are excited to announce our partnership with Cowboys Sports Radio, which is a podcast and radio app with the best podcasts about the Cowboys. Today they’re launching their free iOS and Android apps:
Get informed on your Cowboys via CowboysCast!