Phillips: Fan Of Zeke? Then You Know Cowboys Can't Draft Solely On Need

FRISCO, Texas – You'll probably hear this a lot outside The Star over the next three months. You might be saying it yourself.

'Defensive-minded draft.'

For the second time in three years, the Cowboys lost an epic divisional-round playoff game to one of this generation's greats, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers.

And for the 57th consecutive offseason, the Cowboys will look for ways to get more pressure on the quarterback.

This isn't an issue exclusive to the 2014 or 2016 teams. This is an every-year priority for 32 NFL teams, including the Cowboys coming off an underrated defensive season.

"We're playing good sound defense, good solid defense, but obviously that's our number one priority is to continue to try to get pressure on the passer," executive vice president Stephen Jones said Tuesday from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. "We're big believers that it can certainly change your dynamic of your defense and therefore your football team, so we'll continue to try to improve in that area."

Flip the script, and the Cowboys' offense looks as balanced and dynamic as any unit in the league: fifth in scoring average (26.3), fifth in total yards per game (376.7), second in rushing per game (149.8), fourth in total first downs (358), 10th in third down conversion percentage (42.3).

So, naturally, a popular suggestion for the Cowboys' offseason approach is …

Defensive-minded draft.

Hang on. Just remember this:

If the Cowboys had taken that need-first approach last April, Ezekiel Elliott might not be here.

Running back depth was a priority, of course, but the team still had Darren McFadden following his 1,089-yard season despite only 10 starts. A month earlier, they'd signed two-time Pro Bowler Alfred Morris to a two-year deal.

Besides quarterback, what were the most-discussed draft needs on the roster? Pass rusher and cornerback.

Instead, the Cowboys made Elliott (No. 4) the earliest running back selection since Trent Richardson (No. 3, Cleveland) in 2012 and only the eighth running back taken in the top five since 2000.

The rationale: Elliott could help both sides of the ball by keeping the defense fresher – more time playing with a lead and perhaps less total time on the field.

"We knew we were taking a position that probably was higher than that position in the current scene deserved," team owner/general manager Jerry Jones said earlier this month. "But there's no question we saw that we could not get where we wanted to get by drafting on defense."

So, the Cowboys went best available instead. Eight months and one rushing title later?

"He's exactly more than we had hoped for," Jones said.

There's plenty for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to build on this offseason. The defense did make a discernable improvement despite losing arguably their two most talented edge rushers, Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, for 15 and seven games, respectively, due to suspensions and injuries.

The Cowboys jumped from 16th in points allowed per game in 2015 (23.4) to fifth in 2016 (19.1). They allowed the fewest rushing yards per game of any defense in the league (83.5) after tying for 22nd last year (120.9).

And, the sack totals increased, too: 36 in 2016, up from 31 in 2015 and up from 28 in 2014.

For as much criticism and skepticism as the defensive line has gotten since all the way back in OTA's, only three other D-Lines in the league produced more sacks than the Cowboys' 29: Carolina (36), Minnesota (34) and Seattle (32).

Marinelli did a terrific job with this group. They're still looking to get better. Every team never can have enough pass rushers, and this team has three starting defensive backs (Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne) set for unrestricted free agency.

There's little doubt the organization will look to address defense, most notably the pass rush. But disciplined is the best approach, and you can be sure the Joneses and senior director of college/pro personnel Will McClay will be.

"With our cap situation the way it is and really at the end of the day our philosophy, we're not big on overspending in free agency," Stephen Jones said Tuesday. "If you ask me where we've got the best opportunity to do it, it's to go to work in the draft. Now whether that's the first pick, the second pick, the third pick, I can't tell you how the draft's going to turn out.

"I think that's how you make your biggest mistakes is saying we're going to pick for need, we're going to take the best defensive end in the draft, not the best player in the draft when our pick comes."

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