Phillips: Why Pass Rush Is, And Always Will Be, An Offseason Priority

IRVING, Texas – The NFL Scouting Combine starts this week, and believe it or not, Cowboys brass will study more than just the defensive line prospect workouts scheduled by the league for Sunday in Indianapolis.

This past Friday the team got some bad news six months in advance: Second-year veteran Randy Gregory is suspended the first four games of the 2016 regular season for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. With three defensive ends (Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey and Jack Crawford) set for unrestricted free agency, there's only one edge rusher besides Gregory currently under contract who played regular snaps last season: DeMarcus Lawrence. David Irving, signed off the Chiefs' practice squad in the middle of last season, is signed through 2016, but he has played more tackle than end.

As things stand in late February, that's the definition of thin. But the Gregory news shouldn't narrow the Cowboys' potential thinking at No. 4. Defensive end already was a position need when the offseason began, and the truth is, it's always a priority to some degree because everything starts up front.

Free agency, which starts March 9, will decide where their pass rush stands on paper by the time the draft rolls around the final week in April. Expect defensive end to be addressed on some level before then, because the team usually looks to cover as many bases as possible so they can draft as purely as possible – no reaching required.

If the best player on their board at No. 4 is a pass rusher, that's great. If not, there are other spots that need help. Cornerback, linebacker, backup quarterback and receiver come to mind, but again, moves in March will influence moves in April.

The biggest takeaway here is Gregory's development going forward. As a rookie, he missed four of the first five games with the ankle injury he suffered in the season opener against the Giants. When he returned in late October, he averaged 15 defensive snaps for seven games. In the final four games his snaps doubled to about 30, working on passing downs.

Typically rookie pass rushers don't pile up sacks; they need time to adjust to the speed of the NFL. DeMarcus Ware holds the franchise's rookie sack record in a full 16-game season (8). In 2014, Lawrence didn't have a sack in an injury-shortened seven-game rookie regular season before getting two in the playoffs.

When Gregory does return to the lineup this fall, he'll be looking for his first regular-season sack after tallying three in three preseason games. The ankle limited his snaps and his rhythm on defense. Back in Oxnard last summer, one could argue he was the most outstanding defensive player in training camp practices -- clearly a first-round talent who slipped to No. 60 due to off-the-field issues that surfaced again last week with the suspension announcement.

"This is a disappointment," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said in a statement over the weekend. "We have been clear with Randy about what his responsibilities are and what is expected of him. This is something that he is going to have to work through and correct."

Like any young player, Gregory needs time on task. He'll be eligible to participate in all offseason and preseason practices and games. The suspension will be an early-season setback for the Cowboys' depth, as well as Gregory's development. But the defense essentially didn't have him for the first month last year, either, due to injury.

Pass rush is one of those annual needs for every team, no matter how productive it might have been the previous year. The search for players who can affect the quarterback never ends. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli likes a deep rotation of fresh, active pass rushers. The Cowboys have long subscribed to that thinking, long before Gregory's suspension was handed down last week, and will continue to view the position as a priority.

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