Spagnola: Defensive End Once Again Is Holding This Franchise Hostage

IRVING, Texas – This draft could have been so, so simple for the Dallas Cowboys, owners of the fourth pick, potentially a real catbird seat in two weeks with the potential of a quarterback now going off the board on each of the first two picks.

No position would have taken them hostage, not one making them grimace when the time comes to match need with availability.

Want to take a quarterback? Fine.

Want to take a cornerback? Go for it.

Linebacker? No problem.

Running back? You bet.

Could do so with a clear conscience, without having one position continually nagging in the back of their mind; without feeling a tad guilty if ignoring this need; without being tempted to commit the biggest no-no in the draft – reach for need.

If … if only … last year's roll-of-the-dice in the second round on pick No. 60 had not come up snake eyes – so far.

Darn it, Randy Gregory. Your suspension for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy has mucked up this entire situation. Yeah, it's only four games, certainly not an eternity, but a quarter of an NFL season. Worse, the suspension presents this dilemma gnawing at the Cowboys' inner soul:

Can we ever trust him again?

See, it's not as if he's had just one minor slip-up in a program he was entered into once selected with the 60th pick of last year's NFL Draft since he tested positive for marijuana at the Scouting Combine. He's screwed up multiple times to earn this season-opening four-game suspension, leaving him in the perilous position of being banned for 10 games if violating the policy another time.

Trust might only be a five-letter word, but the meaning's magnitude in the NFL is infinitely large.

So now I'm sure the Cowboys feel this need to cover themselves at defensive end, a position that seems to have always haunted the team ever since "Too Tall" became too old and Harvey Martin also became an unreliable burden. And that was in the 1980s. This is 2016.

In the 55-year draft history of the Dallas Cowboys, 10 times they have used a first-round pick on a defensive end, and in Ed Jones' case, the first pick in the 1974 draft. They hit on Ed, if we excuse his one-year dalliance with boxing in 1979. Why, he's still tied for the club record for seasons played (15), owns the club record for most games played (224) and most consecutive games started (203).

But it was nearly 30 years later until they hit another defensive end homer, selecting DeMarcus Ware with the 11th pick in the 2005 draft. Ware in nine seasons became the club's all-time sack leader (117). But you know what? When it comes to catalytic defensive ends (there is that term again), those two really are it.

Now, they did find a couple of really nice defensive ends in the first round, Jim Jeffocat with the 23rd pick in 1983 and Greg Ellis with the eighth pick in 1998. Found a few, well, nice defensive ends in Anthony Spencer with the 26th pick in 2007 and Ebenezer Ekuban at 20 in 1999.

But after that, well, Toby Smith (1971) two years later was included in the trade-up with Houston for what turned out to be that first pick in the 1974 draft. They missed in the first rounds with Larry Bethea (1978), Kevin Brooks (1985, turning him into a defensive tackle), Shante Carver (1994), turned Jay Ratliff (2005) into a nose tackle and Anthony Spencer (2007) felled by injuries.

Not exactly a stellar track record.

In all, if we eliminate those defensive ends selected to play defensive tackle or DE in a 3-4, or the three guys turned into starting offensive guards (Pat Donovan, Kurt Peterson and Glen Titensor), the Cowboys have spent 42 draft choices on defensive ends. The best of those non-first-rounders was Tony Tolbert (fourth round, 1989). And if two years of evidence is meaningful, DeMarcus Lawrence taken in the second round two years ago just might be turning into a memorable one.

Then there was Hall of Famer Charles Haley, but he arrived in that 1992 trade.

So many others have come and gone: Kavika Pittman, Tony Hill, Kevin Harris, Colston Weatherington, Brandon Williams and Rhondy Weston, who didn't even make it out of training camp in 1989 he was so bad. (I know, hard to believe Jimmy didn't bat 1.000 in the draft.)

The Cowboys seemingly forever chasing their tails at a position of such importance.

And now, here they are again. They need defensive end help.

Yep, they have Lawrence, though coming of surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back, he'll hold down one starting position. The other? Well, that's why they took the gamble on Greg Hardy last year, but all signs indicate that ship has sailed, and then also gambled on Gregory, whose status at this point resides in a state of limbo of sorts.

They have a few possibilities to fill that other starting role, re-signing Jack Crawford and signing Oakland restricted free agent Benson Mayowa. And there is last year's young find, David Irving, who has played inside and outside on the line. Plus, who knows what last year's seventh-rounder Ryan Russell might be, battling injuries all season.

So at this point, today, who are your two starters?

Lawrence and …

Would have been simple had Gregory minded his Ps and Qs. He showed a lot in training camp, only to suffer the injured foot. But once he got back on the field he showed promise, showed he could devil the quarterbacks, though still looking for his first NFL sack. The guy's got talent. But once again he'll get off to a false-start this season, missing those first four games.


So that brings us to this draft. Many think the Cowboys will select Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa. Seems talented, but another guy who isn't a choirboy. And I heard this the other day about him, how he's not a "quick-twitch" defensive end. Meaning he's not DeMarcus Ware. And to me, if I'm taking a defensive end at No. 4, he needs to potentially be DeMarcus Ware, meaning a double-digit sack guy.

Maybe the Cowboys think he's good enough to play the strong-side and move Lawrence to the weak. I grimace since Lawrence played so well on the strong-side.

After Bosa, the pickings at defensive end grow slim in the first round. There is this Shaq Lawson from Clemson. He looks more like a weak-side defensive end in a 4-3 than DeForest Buckner, more of a bulky 3-4 DE. Ol' Shaq finished this past season with 12.5 sacks and 24.5 tackles for losses. That's what I'm talking about. His "twitches" are quick. Remember his name.

Would love to mention again Noah Spence, a pure pass rusher, but how do you qualify taking a guy high in the first round after he ran into trouble at Ohio State, banned from the Big Ten for testing positive for ecstasy far too many times, while you have Gregory on your hands.

This is what happens when your need and draft availability doesn't particularly coincide. Just not a plethora of first-round, pass-rushing defensive ends, and there is nothing the Cowboys can do about that.

What to do, what to do?

Reach in the first round?

Bet on Mayowa or Irving or Crawford?

Or … and this makes me cringe a bit … grit your teeth for the first four games by doubling down on Gregory to man that weak-side when he returns?

Just have to do better than last year's 31 sacks, and without Hardy, that total of players returning reduces to 25 sacks. Only five teams last year had fewer sacks than the Cowboys' 31, representing 6.5 fewer than the league average.

If the Cowboys are going to do a better job of closing out games, an Achilles heel too many times last year, increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks is a must. And oh, by the way, they will play 11 games this season against quarterbacks finishing this past season in the top 17 of passer efficiency.

Major, major decision.

If only Gregory … ugh.

Trust is a terrible thing to waste.

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