Spagnola: Cowboys Must Keep Taking Their Cuts At Solving The Pass-Rush

FRISCO, Texas – Well, here we go again with the offseason for the Dallas Cowboys now officially nearly two weeks old, and will be in full swing after this weekend's Senior Bowl and Pro Bowl are played, along with next Sunday's Super Bowl down in Houston.

And darn, if it's not the same song, next verse.

The Cowboys need a pass rusher.

Again.

And not just a guy. A feared pass rusher. A guy capable of producing double-digit sack seasons. Not as a one-year lark, but a multi-year habit. And they haven't had one since releasing DeMarcus Ware that 2014 offseason for fear he was in injury decline after back, shoulder and arm injuries reduced their double-digit sack dude from 2006-12 to only a half-dozen in 2013.

They can only hope they are not in the midst of one of those lengthy gaps known to hamstring this franchise after producing five consecutive double-digit sack leaders the first five full seasons sacks became an official NFL statistic during the strike-shortened (nine games) 1982 season.

Why, from 1983 through 1987, the Cowboys had three different guys over those five seasons lead the team with double-digit sacks: Randy White (2), Ed Jones (2) and Jim Jeffcoat. Then from 1988-91, only Jeffcoat could produce one double-digit sack total over those four seasons.

The Cowboys took a chance on trading for recalcitrant defensive end Charles Haley in 1992, and bingo, with so much attention paid to the feared Haley, Jeffcoat had 10.5 sacks that season, and from 1992-96, the Cowboys sack leader had double-digits sacks in four of those five seasons.

Then came the gap. After defensive end Tony Tobert's 12.5-sack season in 1996, the Cowboys went nine consecutive years without anyone recording more than Greg Ellis' nine sacks in 2004.

Enter Ware in 2005, the 11th pick in the draft. After an eight-sack rookie season tying Ellis for the team lead, Ware produced seven consecutive seasons with double-digit sacks, topping out at a near NFL single-season record of 20 in 2008. And when his sacks dropped off that 2013 season, Jason Hatcher stretched the team's streak to eight consecutive seasons with a career-high 11.

And that takes us to current history, as modest as it may be. Jeremy Mincey led the team in 2014 with all of six sacks. Then DeMarcus Lawrence in 2015 led the team with eight sacks. And in 2016, while the team sacks steadily climbed from 28 to 31 to 36 over the past three seasons, newcomer Benson Mayowa had the team lead with all of six sacks.

All making Cowboys COO Stephen Jones quite prophetic when expressing his 2016 concerns heading toward training camp:

"Overall, the obvious is there, that we haven't replaced a guy like [Greg] Hardy or Ware from the past. We don't have a pass rusher right now when (the offense) breaks the huddle, they want to figure out where he is."

And they still don't.

That then becomes – still is – the priority this offseason: Somehow, someway, through free agency, trade or the draft, find the next Harvey Martin or the next Randy White or "Too Tall" Jones or the next Charles Haley or the next DeMarcus Ware.

Problem is, as Bill Parcells was want to say, "You can't just go down to Texaco and get you one."

It's hard to find one. Real hard.

As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would say this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., when asked about the No. 1 priority being an improved pass rush, "To be fair, that's an area very few teams don't want to address – to get better pressure with a standard, unskewed defense. That, and the game that we have today departs reality almost the minute it comes out of your mouth. You not only need as good a player as you can, as talented player as you can, but you also have to have schemes that can give these quarterbacks a headache out there …

"We're always going to be looking for ways to improve our pressure."

So the looking began at this week's Senior Bowl, and remember the rosters are stocked with only seniors and juniors who already have graduated. So the junior-outs are not eligible to play in this game. And when you look at like someone's Top-50 list for this draft, generally there was only a half-dozen of those guys there in Mobile.

And from what we saw down there over the three days of practice, not sure there was that guy who you just had to have. Didn't see any budding J.J. Watts or Jadeveon Clowneys out there at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. And making matters even more difficult to find that guy in the draft, thanks to going 13-3, the best record in the NFC, the Cowboys won't be picking until 28th in the first round and then, assuming nothing dramatically changes, won't be picking until 28th in the second round.

Just difficult.

See, that is why you saw the Cowboys roll the dice in 2015 on a troubled Hardy. That is why the Cowboys rolled the dice in the second round of the 2015 draft on a Randy Gregory with a background of testing positive for marijuana. Why they swung for the fences on the seriously injured Jaylon Smith in the second round of 2016.

They desperately need that guy offenses are looking for when they break the huddle.

[embeddedad0]Oh, the Cowboys have candidates coming back this season. Maybe the light went off for David Irving, but the Cowboys must decide if he's an end or a tackle. Maybe Mayowa figured something out the second half of the season when he picked up four of his six sacks in the final six games.

But the Cowboys can't afford to hope, just like they can't continue to count on guys to successfully return from offseason surgeries for the second time in the past two years: DeMarcus Lawrence from another microdiscectomy procedure for a herniated disk in the same area as last year and Tyrone Crawford from another rotator cuff surgery, this time to the other shoulder. Or for last year's fourth-round pick Charles Tapper to come back strong as ever from back problems limiting him this past season to like two weeks of training camp, even though the signs are good, as they are seeming to be for Smith to potentially even play with a brace supporting his drop-foot problem.

Nor can they count on Gregory, serving a third suspension for violation of the league's substance abuse policy – this time for a year – to ever play for the Cowboys again. That would be a bonus if they hit on any or all.

And on top of all that, they just can't afford to spend like $70 million on a free agent some other team doesn't think is worth the price tag. The Cowboys just don't have that type of disposable cap space to speculate on.

See, it's hard, and becomes even harder to find those guys in the draft since most colleges these day rarely produce complete defensive ends, meaning guys capable of getting to the quarterback while also able to set the edge in the running game, since the spread offenses dictate utilizing mostly speed-rushing defensive ends who end up being undersized in the NFL.

So if you happen to check out Saturday's Senior Bowl game, 1:30 p.m. (CT) on NFL Network, here are a few guys to keep your eyes on: Daeshon Hall of Texas A&M, Jordan Willis of Kansas State, Derek Rivers of Youngstown State and Tonah Kpassagnon of Villanova. And pay particular attention to Kpassagnon, he's No. 92 on the South team and easily recognizable since he's 6-7 and a well-constructed 280 pounds.

Not sure any of them are first-round picks, but maybe second, third and fourths. And remember, Tapper, but a fourth-rounder, might have earned a starting job as a rookie if not for his undetected degenerative back problem. So there is some hope.

And for the Cowboys, well, you've got to continue taking cuts on this problem. Can't shrink up. Because as my dad used to say, you can't hit the ball if you don't swing the bat.

So here we go, same discussion, fourth straight offseason.

Swing and a … well, we'll see if the song ends up changing.

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