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Hardy's Signing Gives Cowboys Huge Upgrade At DE; But Questions Remain

IRVING, Texas – So the Cowboys added a defensive end in free agency last season that turned out to be one of the team's locker-room leaders.

They drafted a player early in the second round and while he spent most of the 2014 season injured,  came on strong late in the year and gives the Cowboys plenty of hope he'll make a big leap in 2015.

And then, the Cowboys went out and added one of the more dominating defensive players in free agency, a player that will certainly help the team's need for a consistent pass rusher when he's on the field.

But even after all of that, big questions still remain at the position here in late March.

For starters, let's focus on Greg Hardy because we know that's where the NFL is focusing its attention. Commissioner Roger Goodell said a decision on any suspension and/or fine for Hardy's domestic violence charges will be made in the "near future." Considering how much emphasis the league has placed on creating domestic violence awareness and stiffening the penalties for such behavior, the Cowboys have to be anticipating Hardy to receive some kind of suspension for last year's incident that kept him on the NFL's exempt list – though he did remain on the Panthers' payroll.

If suspended, Hardy will be able to practice with the team in training camp and should be allowed to play in preseason games.

Still, the Cowboys need to have a plan in place if Hardy isn't available to start the season. While he'll likely play right defensive end and face the opponent's left tackle each game, that role will probably go to DeMarcus Lawrence during any kind of suspension.

Entering his second year, Lawrence played just seven games, along with two in the playoffs. That's where he made his biggest impact, making a game-clinching sack and forced fumble against the Lions, which occurred just moments after he recovered a fumble, only to lose it back to the Lions, giving Detroit a second chance to win the game.

But Lawrence made his game-winning play while rushing from the right side, a spot he'll likely play and start until Hardy is ready to take over.

On the left side is where the Cowboys are expected to play Jeremy Mincey, who evolved into one of the team's best leaders in 2014. Signed in free agency with some character and maturity issues during his first few years in the NFL, Mincey was a core player for a defensive front that got remarkably as last season wore on. Mincey led the team in both sacks (six) and quarterback pressures (39).

But Lawrence can probably play both sides of the field, giving the Cowboys a solid three-man rotation for the two spots. And Mincey also showed the ability to rush from a defensive tackle spot on passing situations.

So what about the fourth end spot? The Cowboys saw George Selvie sign with the NFC East rival Giants. Selvie was an unrestricted free agent after playing two seasons with the Cowboys, starting 29 of 32 games, including 13 last season.

Still on the market – for now – is longtime Cowboys veteran Anthony Spencer, who recently visited the Saints. Former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan remains the DC in New Orleans and could be pushing for a reunion with Spencer, an eight-year veteran. Spencer has also visited the Seahawks since becoming a free agent earlier this month.

Spencer battled back from microfracture surgery last year, which caused him to miss all but one game in 2013. Toward the end of the season, Spencer became more active and even made the sack and forced the initial fumble against the Lions that Lawrence recovered but fumbled away. It should've been Spencer who made the game-winning play, yet he still showed the ability to get off the edge and attack the quarterback.

The Cowboys aren't opposed to bringing him back, but at the right price.

Don't forget about Jack Crawford, a versatile lineman who can play both end and tackle. He played six games before going to injured reserve because of a thumb injury. Seventh-round pick Ben Gardner spent all of last year on IR with a shoulder injury but could work himself into the mix with a good offseason and camp.

There seems to be enough players with enough talent for the Cowboys to make some waves on the defensive line in 2015.

But how all of these pieces will fit remains as a question the Cowboys have yet to solve.


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