Improving the pass rush might have been the top priority for the Dallas Cowboys’ last off-season. It’s why they signed controversial defensive end Greg Hardy, and were giddy when Randy Gregory slipped to them in the second round of the NFL Draft.
On top of that, they felt DeMarcus Lawrence could have a breakout season in his sophomore campaign. They also were expecting big things out of Tyrone Crawford, handing him a long-term extension before the season. And they had veteran Jeremy Mincey returning fresh off a six-sack season.
As owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, “I thought that we had really addressed it. … I was hopeful that the combination of the group we put together — Crawford, Hardy, certainly Lawrence did do well for us — I thought all of that would give us more of what [defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli] was trying to accomplish there.
“Close, but close doesn’t count.”
No it doesn’t, like most things that went wrong for the Cowboys in 2015. And the pass rush certainly left much to be desired, producing only three more sacks (28 to 31) than the previous season.
So pass rush remains among the top priorities to improve this off-season, and the Cowboys are getting a firsthand look at two talented rushers this week at the Senior Bowl.
While there has been plenty of talk and buzz about the Cowboys’ quarterback situation, upgrading the pass rush may be just as important.
Look no further than this year’s Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos have the best pass rush in the league, and knocking Tom Brady down 20 times in the AFC Championship Game is one of the reasons they’re playing for a championship.
The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, have the sixth-best pass rush.
The Cowboys certainly don’t need a refresher on how valuable it is, either. They aren’t too far removed from the 2014 playoff run that ended in Green Bay when they failed to get pressure on a gimpy Aaron Rodgers in the divisional round.
“You’ve got to have a pass rush,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “We had a better pass rush, but we’ve got to get better. However we get it, however we go about acquiring the players that are going to give us that, pass rush is always going to be at the top of our list in terms of need.”
The Cowboys, indeed, could explore various options to get better in the pass rush. It seems unlikely at this point they’ll re-sign Hardy, although it’s too early in the off-season for definitive conclusions.
Stephen Jones and Jerry Jones each were asked about Hardy, and were coy in their answers.
“We’re just now really looking at individual situations, contract situations, all of that,” Jerry said. “So I don’t have any comment about any of our players that are out of contract.”
Technically, the Cowboys have an exclusive window to negotiate with Hardy before the league year ends March 9. But there doesn’t seem to be a strong interest in going that route between the two sides.
“We’re not going to address that yet,” Stephen said. “We’re still … that’s one of the things that’s still a work-in-progress and we’ll continue to have discussions.”
For the time being, though, the Cowboys are evaluating the pass rushers available in the upcoming class. It’s headlined by Ohio State junior Joey Bosa, but there are two other intriguing prospects this week at the Senior Bowl.
Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence is arguably the best defensive prospect in Mobile, but he has off-field baggage. Spence started his career at Ohio State but was booted out of the Big Ten after multiple failed drug tests.
He resurrected his career at Eastern Kentucky, compiling 22.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks last season, and must convince NFL teams his previous problems are a thing of the past.
And Spence knows that better than anyone, although that might not even prevent him from falling as Gregory did last year.
“For me, [the interview process] is probably even more important than for a lot of people here,” Spence said. “Being what I’ve been through is big for me to explain my story and show them mostly that I’ve matured and moved on from that.”
There are questions on the field, too, whether the 6-foot-3, 254-pound Spence is better suited as a 3-4 outside linebacker, or if he’s versatile enough to fit as an end in a 4-3 scheme such as the Cowboys run.
But one thing is clear — Spence has pass rushing skills.
“Noah is one of the biggest wild cards in this draft because talent says he’s a top 15 pick, but the baggage says he doesn’t belong in the first round,” said Dane Brugler, draft analyst for NFLDraftScout.com and CBS Sports. “So where does a guy like that end up? This is a big week for him.”
Another defensive end of note is Penn State’s Carl Nassib, who is on the North roster coached by the Cowboys’ staff.
Nassib is a guy who had never started a game (high school or college) until this season and wound up leading the nation in sacks with 15.5 and earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“He’s an overachiever, talk about motor, talk about the hustle, the high effort, that’s who he is,” Brugler said. “He’s doing a real nice job here. He’s beating the offensive tackle off the ball and he’s finishing. That’s what he showed on tape and that’s what he’s showing here.”