Phillips: Pass Rush a Huge Need, But 'Boys Must Stick to the Draft Plan

IRVING, Texas –Let's remove the "what ifs" and deal with what we know about Greg Hardy's situation right now.

The NFL has suspended Hardy 10 regular-season games for conduct detrimental to the league. By their ruling, Nov. 26 is the first time Hardy will wear a Cowboys uniform in a game that counts in the standings.

He might eventually win an appeal that reduces his suspension. He might not. No one can say for sure. It's a complex case involving a league investigation that we in the general public weren't privy to – period.

Point is, right now the Cowboys can pencil him in for only six meaningful games, and by Nov. 26, 2015, he'll be more than 14 months removed from regular-season action, having last played on Sept. 14, 2014 as a member of the Carolina Panthers.

Should that change the Cowboys' draft strategy out here at Valley Ranch?

Certainly not 180 degrees. The top three position needs, in no particular order, have been the same since January. Poll your grandma. Bet she can list them: cornerback, running back and defensive line – namely, pass rush for a defense that tallied only 28 sacks last year.

But you can't tell me Wednesday's ruling doesn't up the Cowboys' urgency for an impact pass rusher … just a smidgen.

They expected a Hardy suspension when they signed him to an incentive-laden one-year deal in mid-March. Jerry Jones said as much in his statement Wednesday. But now it's here, and it's significant.

Ten games isn't really 10 games. Factoring in rust and conditioning, players usually need time to round into form after their return from that long a layoff. Think how long it took fellow defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence after missing 13 games with a broken foot last year, preseason included. Or Josh Brent last year after two years away from the game. Or Bruce Carter in 2011 after a 10-game absence, preseason included.

Per the league's statement, Hardy can continue to participate in the team's voluntary offseason program, working toward his $1.3 million roster bonus. He can take part in training camp and preseason, likely taking more reps than the average veteran with a Pro Bowl on his résumé.

Starting Sept. 5 when his suspension begins, he sits.

The Cowboys will need a Hardy Plan B, as it stands right now, for the vast majority of the season.

They have Lawrence, the 2014 second-rounder who showed flashes in the playoffs. They have 2014 sack leader Jeremy Mincey. But they don't have rotation guys Anthony Spencer and George Selvie anymore, and maybe the most masterful part of Rod Marinelli's coaching job last year was how he squeezed contributions out of several different players.

The Cowboys were expected to take a defensive lineman at some point on draft weekend even before Wednesday's news, and that certainly seems likely now. Problem is, immediate-impact pass rushers are hard to find at the bottom of the first round or later. Lawrence didn't contribute much last year, mostly due to injury. And this draft isn't particularly deep at that position.

Maybe they look harder at an edge rusher, hoping one falls to them at No. 27. But the best thing they can do is do exactly what they did last year in the first round with Zack Martin: Stay as true to their board as possible and pick who they think is the best guy based on months and months of collectively exhaustive research. Reaching at the end of the first round isn't nearly as much of a sin as the early first round, but it's still a mistake.

If the best guy available is a cornerback, fine.

Running back, fine.

Defensive tackle, fine.

Tight end, absolutely not. You get my point, though.

Hardy won't help them anytime soon during the 2015 season, but the league made its ruling. Better for the front office to draft high-quality players for other position needs than make a desperate grab to fill a hole they knew would be there all along – just not how long.

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