Alongside all the changes seemingly in-store for the Dallas Cowboys this season, a long-term project along the defensive line is also set to potentially bloom. After years of searching for any semblance of a pass rush after the release of longtime franchise icon DeMarcus Ware, perhaps Dallas has finally collected enough pieces to field a unit capable of continuously affecting games.
The Cowboys defensive line rebuild began during 2014 offseason, when Ware, the team’s all-time sack leader was released after a nine-year run. Since, Dallas has drafted 11 edge rushers (six within the first four rounds) in hopes of finding someone capable of generating production anywhere close to peak-Ware. They also combed through the pass rushers available in the free agency bargain bin, searching for value and perhaps a diamond in the rough. Since 2014, they opted to field DEs like George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey, Jack Crawford, Greg Hardy, and Benson Mayowa.
The early returns were predictably underwhelming. Given the long development timeline for rookie pass rushers, and the fact that the game’s premier defensive ends typically aren’t available on the cheap, it has taken multiple seasons for the Cowboys sack totals to return to even the same level they had with an aging Ware.
In Ware’s final season in Dallas, the team recorded 34 total sacks (27th in league) and finished 26th in adjusted sack rate (6.1%). The following year without Ware, the Cowboys’ pass rush bottomed out, recording just 28 sacks and finishing with a 4.6% adjusted pass rate (29th).
However in each year from 2015 through 2019, Dallas increased their team sack totals. Their adjusted sack rate has plateaued, hovering between 6.5% and 6.8%. Will the 2020 group be able to rise from above the average performances?
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The initial jump coincides with the ascension of DeMarcus Lawrence, the man tasked with replacing Ware when the Cowboys drafted him No. 34 overall in the 2014 draft.
Now 28-years-old and hitting his prime, 30 of Lawrence’s 39 career sacks have come in the last three seasons. And while getting sacks is just one aspect of what makes the two-time Pro Bowler a special player, the fact that the Cowboys hit on a legit superstar DE through the draft has allowed them to build a respectable pass rush that now has a chance to shine.
Much like Ezekiel Elliott is the (alleged) straw that stirs the drink on offense, the Dallas defensive line largely revolves around Lawrence. Last season the Cowboys found much more pass-rushing success without deviating much from their basic team building strategy: they acquired Robert Quinn in a mere swap of sixth round draft picks, who promptly rewarded them with 11.5 sacks in just 14 games.
That instant production was a shot in the arm for the typically toothless Dallas pass rush, and showed how well their team building strategies can pay off. With Lawrence occupying so much of the opposing team’s attention, Quinn was able to receive better matchups and opportunities than he saw with the Dolphins. And even though Quinn departed to Chicago in free agency, the Cowboys are aiming to improve on those 2019 results based on who they brought in over the offseason.
Joining Lawrence on the defensive line this year will be Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith, two players who like Quinn come in with a long track record of production. Griffin and Smith have combined for 133.5 career sacks, and represent a notable departure from the typical free agent signing Dallas pursued in the years following Ware’s release.
And also like Quinn, both Griffin and Smith were relatively modest in terms of cost, and represent potentially huge value opportunities given what they each can accomplish opposite Lawrence.
Griffen’s pass rush grade at Pro Football Focus, 76.6, is very close to what Quinn produced with Dallas last year (78.3) and comes under a more disciplined attack that doesn’t sacrifice run defense. Smith hasn’t played since 2015, but reports from camp indicate a player who still has the talent and drive that had him on a Hall of Fame trajectory during his first three years in the league.
In addition, early words from the defensive coaching staff indicated they will be exploiting linebacker Jaylon Smith’s pass rush prowess a lot more than the previous regime did.
It’s been a steady, often ugly climb for the Cowboys pass rush in the years post-Ware, but this 2020 season is the first in a long time that it’s felt as if Dallas has a well-rounded, high-upside collection of players who can pressure the quarterback. While it will take more than just increased sack totals for the Cowboys to have an average or better defense in 2020, how they’ve built their pass rush.
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