Cowboys' needs in offseason: Defensive Line
With the Super Bowl finally concluded, we can finally settle into the true business of the offseason -- assessing the coming months and the way they'll affect the makeup of the Cowboys' roster.
The start of free agency is still roughly a month away, and the NFL draft is still nearly three months away. Despite that, I wanted to look at the roster that's currently in place at Valley Ranch -- who's in place for the future, who isn't, what needs to be upgraded and what doesn't.
I figured I'd start with the defensive line, which is arguably the unit most in need of revamping heading into 2015.
2014 Overview: Only one other playoff team, Cincinnati, finished with fewer sacks than Dallas this past season. The Cowboys sacked the quarterback just 28 times in the regular season -- good enough for a No. 28 ranking in the league. That's not to say they didn't have moments. The pass rush put it together at times, particularly down the stretch -- games against Jacksonville and Philadelphia stand out. And obviously the pass rush played a huge role in securing a wildcard win against Detroit. This unit's limitations were on full display in the divisional round against Green Bay, however, as a hobbled Aaron Rodgers bought plenty of time to carve up the Cowboys secondary. All credit in the world to Rod Marinelli for coaching production out of a limited group, but it's clear that the Cowboys' pass rush is still hurting from losing names like DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Jay Ratliff in recent seasons.
What's Changing: The Cowboys have plenty of free agency questions to answer in the next couple of months, and several of those fall on the defensive line. Of the Cowboys' eight-man rotation on the defensive line, three main contributors -- Anthony Spencer, Nick Hayden and George Selvie -- are set to become free agents. None of those guys were hugely productive in 2014, but they all played important roles. Hayden led all defensive linemen in tackles as the team's primary one-technique, while Spencer and Selvie formed the rotation at left defensive end. On top of that, the Cowboys have to decide what to do with Henry Melton. The 2012 Pro Bowler has a team option on his contract that would escalate his salary to $9 million should the Cowboys pick it up. Considering he didn't record any sacks over the last seven weeks of the season, though, that seems incredibly unlikely to happen. Assuming that's the case, the Cowboys could be without four of their top eight defensive linemen from 2014, and they'll have to decide who is worth bringing back.
What Isn't: Fortunately, there are some really big pieces returning for 2015 -- and at affordable prices, to boot. Mincey led the team in sacks with six, and he's got one year remaining on the two-year, $3 million deal he signed last spring. Tyrone Crawford also returns for the final year of his rookie deal, and although he finished with just three sacks, Cowboys coaches credited him with 39 quarterback pressures -- most on the team by a wide margin. Finally, DeMarcus Lawrence, who was drafted to be the cornerstone for the future, is obviously in the fold for the foreseeable future. Lawrence missed half the season with a broken foot and he struggled down the stretch, but in two playoff games he combined for three tackles, two sacks, one tackle for loss, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Expectations for him will be sky-high in Year 2.
Going Forward: Anybody and everybody knows what's up with this unit in 2015 -- it's arguably the spot that's in the direst need of rebuilding in the coming years. Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones has identified the pass rush as the area that will need to be looked at in both the draft and free agency, while executive vice president Stephen Jones has said the team will need to retool the defensive line the same way it did with its offensive line. Trading up to draft Lawrence 34th overall was the first part of that, but there's plenty more work to do. Unlike previous years, the Cowboys actually have some cap space heading into free agency, and they have seven total picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. I don't think they have enough cap room, nor do they have a high enough draft pick, to make a truly big splash addition. But I do expect them to address their pass rush with both veteran and rookie players. It's the next big piece in improving this team's chances at a championship.
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