Fans and media alike spent the majority of the offseason saying the Cowboys HAD to use a high draft pick on a DE or sign one in free agency for big money. I completely understand his thought process, too. After all, both Lawrence and Gregory are facing suspensions for the first four games (though Fish reported a couple of weeks ago that Lawrence's circumstances may allow for some leniency) -- leaving the Cowboys with a bunch of unproven youngsters. But while an elite presence off the edge would undoubtedly help this team, the Cowboys clearly feel good about the guys they have ... and so do I.
It can be risky relying solely on unproven guys reaching their potential but it can also pay off big-time. I want to give you a look at the potential of the young defensive ends who all have a chance to break out for the Cowboys in 2016.
First off, starting in preseason games, then-rookie Randy Gregory showed enormous potential in 2015 before his injury ... but he hasn’t proven himself as trustworthy. I’m approaching this season as if he won’t play a single snap. If he does, then it’s just a bonus.
Gregory, by the way, popped into Wednesday's sponsors golf tournament, and Fish was on the scene:
Maybe he looks bigger?
Maybe he gets it. We shall see.
Then there is Demarcus Lawrence. While the team feels confident about his chances of a reduced suspension, there’s no guarantee that happens. And as talented as Tank is, I bet there is still some growing up to do there.
So who does that leave the Cowboys with to rush off the edge? Let’s start with the most recent addition of Charles Tapper.
Tapper is a guy who struggled in college due to the fact that he was a bad scheme fit. Tapper played in a 3-4 defense but he’s much better suited as a 4-3 end. Still, even in a less-than-ideal scheme, Tapper had seven sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, three pass breakups, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in 2015. He also had the best 40-yard dash among all D-linemen at the combine. Even if you look past all of that, it’s easy to see why Dallas would like him. Tapper possesses an NFL-ready frame with broad shoulders, long arms and a nice combination of strength and speed. He also has a non-stop motor and has position flexibility. (For more on Tapper, here's a terrific Film Review by Matthew Postins in Cowboys Premium
Tapper calls himself "raw'' and also says how proud he is to have joined "America's Team.'' So his head's in the right place, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has given him the assignment of studying Deacon Jones.
Good goal there!
Now onto Marinelli’s pet cat from the 2015 draft - Ryan Russell.
Russell has a SPARQ score of 125.1 and is more athletic than 66 percent of defensive linemen in the NFL. He ranked in the top eight in the 40-yard dash, broad jump, 3-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle among all D-linemen at the 2015 combine. Like Tapper, Russell struggled in a 3-4 scheme in college but could excel in Dallas’ 4-3 scheme. He looks the part, with long-arms and a muscular build. He’s very flexible, has quick feet, ability to quickly change direction and also has some decent power. Plenty of tools to work with. Russell is disciplined vs. the run and can play multiple position - another parallel between him and Tapper.
We often talk about how rookie pass rushers rarely break out in Year 1. How about Year 2 for Russell?
These next two guys are your potential starters from Week 1: Benson Mayowa and David Irving.
In limited playing time for the Raiders, Mayowa had a sack, a safety, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, 14 total tackles and four tackles for a loss in 2015. Cliff Avril, his former teammate in Seattle, says he thinks Mayowa can be one of the best DE’s in the NFL and that “he has all the tools.” He’s not lying.
Mayowa would've finished in the top seven among all defensive linemen at this year's combine in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump jump, 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill. And like Russell, he’s also in the 66th percentile athletically. Mayowa is a complete athlete working to be a complete player with many positive traits but hasn’t gotten a chance to show what he can do on a regular basis. He may finally get that shot for the Cowboys in 2016.
As Mayowa says himself, "I haven't really scratched the surface yet…I'm not about to brag or boast about anything…Football will take care of itself. ... I'm trying to take this opportunity and run with it.''
Irving is a physical freak of nature. He has a 130.0 SPARQ score and is more athletic than 91.1 percent of defensive linemen in the NFL. His arms (37 1/4") would've been the longest among all D-linemen at this year’s combine. The next closest was Alex McAlister (36"). Only four others had over 35”. Irving's broad jump would've been the best among all D-linemen at this year's combine. His vertical would've been the second best among all D-linemen. His 4.84 40-yard dash is very good for his size (6-7, 272). Only four D-linemen over 270 pounds had a faster time at this year's combine.
Irving flashed big potential in 2015 with the Cowboys when he recorded 0.5 sacks, 1 TFL, 13 tackles and one PBU in limited playing time. Irving uses his length to get in run lanes and knock down passes. Constantly around the QB and disrupting plays. He had eight PBU’s and three blocked kicks in college. Inside, outside, special teams ... with a full offseason to work with Marinelli, the sky is the limit for this guy.
"I want their mind on football," Marinelli said of his rookies at the recent minicamp. "That's all I want them doing: thinking about football, how fortunate we are to be here, how awesome it is as a profession and pay great respect to that position."
While none of these guys are big names that will get casual observers excited, there is no denying their potential. If the four guys I just named can hold down the fort while Gregory/Lawrence are suspended, and continue to blossom thereafter, this end rotation has a chance to be really special - especially when 90 and 94 return to the lineup.
It’s OK to feel nervous about the unknown regarding this DL but don’t sleep on these guys. They may just surprise you when their raw athleticism is married with Marinelli Magic.