Position Series: From Injuries To Free Agency, Questions Surround D-Line

(Editor's Note: This is the first of an 11-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2016 season. Today we examine the defensive line.)

Pressing Matters:Of the players who contributed on the field last year, the Cowboys have just one who is both under contract and did not undergo offseason surgery. That would be Randy Gregory, a second-round pick in 2015 who didn't live up to high expectations, failing to record one sack while missing four games due to injury. After that, there is a question mark around everyone else, whether it's injury or free agency. Both Tyrone Crawford (shoulder) and DeMarcus Lawrence (back) had surgeries after the season but are expected to return by training camp and definitely by the start of the regular season. After that, the Cowboys have Greg Hardy, Jeremy Mincey, Nick Hayden and Jack Crawford who will be unrestricted free agents. It's not likely the team will bring all four back and there's a shot none of them will return. But considering defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli likes to use an eight-man rotation, expect half of the four to return. The big question mark obviously involves Hardy, who had six sacks in 12 games played. Hardy, along with the other three free agents, will probably get the chance to test the free-agent waters and field other offers, but the Cowboys will likely keep a close eye on all situations.

2015 Evaluation: After eight seasons of at least one player with double-digit sacks, the Cowboys have now gone two straight years without one. DeMarcus Lawrence grew into a productive player down the stretch last year, leading the team with eight sacks. After just one sack in the first eight games, he had seven in the second half of the season, and did most of it while battling a nagging back injury. But around him, the Cowboys needed more players to produce. Hardy's six sacks were solid, but his salary warranted more production. Along with Gregory, Mincey didn't get one sack, that lack of pressure being a big reason for the low number of turnovers. 

Need More From … This one is tough because there are obvious reasons why he didn't consistently shine, but Tyrone Crawford received a contract worth around $9 million per season, putting him as one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the game. That's what the Cowboys need from Crawford, who played most of the season banged up with a variety of injuries. He still managed five sacks, which was third on the team and first among interior players. He also ranked third on the team with 27 pressures. So it's hard to say the Cowboys need more from Crawford, but they do, especially when the top four defensive ends managed to combine for just 14 sacks. 

Upgrades Needed:The Cowboys could use some help at the 1-technique, and it could come from within if Terrell McClain can return healthy this year. McClain has battled all sorts of injuries in his first two seasons with Dallas, missing most of 2015 with a toe injury. Even if he returns, the Cowboys need to get bigger and younger in the middle. This 2016 draft is rather deep with 1-technique players and the Cowboys could stand to get one that could contribute right away.

 By The Numbers:

  • Mincey had at least one sack in each of his eight pro seasons before getting held without one during the 2015 campaign.
  • Lawrence set a career-high with a sack in four straight games: Washington, Green Bay, NY Jets and Buffalo. In that span, Lawrence actually had five sacks.
  • In his three seasons with the Cowboys, Hayden has increased his tackle numbers from 51 in 2013, to 52 in 2014, to a career-high 54 tackles last season.

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