The Dallas Cowboys dodged a significant injury when Tyrone Crawford only sprained his ankle in Tuesday’s practice. It appeared to be much worse initially given Crawford’s reaction when he went to the turf, but he’s expected to be ready by the season opener.
But it begged the question how solid the pass rush depth is on this team. The Cowboys have been desperate to improve their pass rush in recent years. They had 36 sacks a season ago, an improvement from their numbers in 2014 (28) and 2015 (31), but nowhere near as good as they’d like.
That’s why they used a first-round draft pick on Taco Charlton, although Charlton has gotten off to a slow start early in camp. He’s already heard the critics early in his pro career.
“I’m 22 years old,” Charlton said. “My life is great, so I don’t care about them.”
But the spotlight is only going to get brighter on Charlton with Crawford out for the coming days.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has seen promise with Charlton’s length and athleticism, and the hope is that Charlton flashes more with the additional reps coming his way.
Charlton is a guy who seems to get better with time.
He more than doubled his sack production his senior year at Michigan from his first three seasons combined. Charlton had 10 sacks as a senior, including six sacks the final five games, compared to nine sacks combined in his first three years.
“He’s got really good length. He’s long. He’s athletic,” Marinelli said. “Very athletic. Now it’s just putting it all together each and every down.”
But all the pressure shouldn’t fall on Charlton.
The Cowboys don’t have a proven “war daddy,” to borrow owner Jerry Jones’ phrase, on the defensive line. It’s rare for rookies to put up double-digit sacks.
But the Cowboys have veterans who might be on the verge of being that type of player, particularly DeMarcus Lawrence. Entering his fourth season, Lawrence believes he can record the team’s first double-digit sacks since Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013.
“I have a goal. I want double digits,” Lawrence said. “But I’ve just got to keep working and let my play speak for itself. I don’t need to sit here and shout numbers. I need to go out there and prove it. It’s all about me staying focused and playing games.”
Lawrence led the team with eight sacks in 2015, but had just one a year ago. Lawrence was suspended for the first four games and battled back issues much of last season.
But Lawrence said he is fully healthy this training camp and spent the off-season focused on his weight and strengthening his core. Being a contract year, he has monetary incentives to show he is more of the eight-sack guy than the one-sack guy.
“My main thing is just making sure I stay healthy and let my play and my work speak for itself,” Lawrence said. “What I put out there on the field is my resume, so I’ve got to go out and show Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones that I’m worth the money.”
Outside of Charlton and Lawrence, the Cowboys have other options to create pressure, too.
Maliek Collins flashed potential as a disruptive force inside and should take more strides in his second season. Benson Mayowa led the team with six sacks even though he was benched three games.
David Irving and Damontre Moore have had their moments, and could contribute when they return from early-season suspensions.
And, of course, Crawford remains in the mix.
But it’s no secret the pass rush has always been a question mark for this team and any potential blow to it only generates more concern.
“Obviously, always has to get better,” coach Jason Garrett said. “It’s been a point of emphasis for us. We’ve had some different guys in the mix. Some guys have been in and out of the lineup, but again a really good opportunity for young guys to show what they can do, both in practice and in preseason games.”