Spagnola: Finding That War Daddy DE Has Been Like Chasing Down Bigfoot

FRISCO, Texas – For the Dallas Cowboys, going on their 58th NFL season and two weeks from their 57th NFL draft, gosh, they must feel like they've been searching for Bigfoot …

         When it comes to drafting pass-rushing defensive ends.

         Oh, they've had their needs over the years. And they've certainly taken their cuts, from the forgettable Ray Krause, Nate Borden and John Gonzaga, the first three defensive ends selected, they in the 1960 expansion draft, all the way to the 54th and last one taken, Charles Tapper, in the fourth round of the 2016 draft.

         But their batting average of success rests comfortably below the Mendoza Line, the poor sap, Mario Mendoza, whose batting average in the Majors always hovered either right above or right below .200. He then became known as the line of demarcation between average at best and pathetic.

         The Cowboys, in their existence, are basically hitting a humbling .167 when it comes to finding Pro Bowl defensive ends. In 54 attempts, starting in 1960, the Cowboys have come away with nine Pro Bowl defensive ends. Nine!

         And I'm being generous here. You know Bob Lilly, he originally was drafted as a defensive end and earned Pro Bowl honors his second season in 1962 before becoming a 10-time Pro Bowler at defensive tackle. And I guess I could give them 10 Pro Bowl defensive ends since they traded second- and third-round picks to obtain two-time Pro Bowler and now Hall of Fame defensive end Charles Haley from San Francisco in 1992.

         But only five of their drafted defensive ends ever reached multiple Pro Bowls at that position: DeMarcus Ware (7), George Andrie (5), Harvey Martin (4) and Ed Jones (3). The fifth is a tad of a stretch since Leon Lett (2) made his Pro Bowl bones playing defensive tackle. Then there's been one each for Tony Tolbert, Greg Ellis and Anthony Spencer.

         And for the sake of further fairness, three of those defensive ends among the 54 drafted were moved to offensive guard, three were moved to defensive tackle, including Chad Hennings, and another to offensive tackle, one Rayfield Wright, now a Hall of Famer. (I eliminated those guys who actually were considered 3-4 defensive ends yet counted guys drafted technically as 3-4 outside linebackers but who put their hand on the ground on third down.)

         Now, the Best Of All Time goes to Ware, right? Though the old-timers will post an argument for Martin as the BOAT at defensive end.

         And it's not like the Cowboys haven't tried and tried and tried. Why, 10 times the Cowboys used first-round picks on defensive ends. Of those, Ware, "Too Tall," Ellis, Jim Jeffcoat and Anthony Spencer were the best. Ebenezer Ekuban was decent. But they whiffed on the likes of Shante Carver, Kevin Brooks (hopelessly moving him to defensive tackle), Larry Bethea and Tody Smith.

         Oh, the names that have come through: Colston Weatherington, Oscar Sturgis, Kevin Harris, Rhondy Weston (a third-rounder who didn't even make it out of training camp), Kavika Pittman and Peppi Zellner. Enough to make you smack yourself upside the head. Second-rounders, third-rounders, seventh-rounders, and back in the day took shots with 12th and 13th rounders.

         And now, in less than two weeks, here the Cowboys go again, in search of their elusive Bigfoot, or as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones likes to say, "a War Daddy," that pass-rushing defensive end who can get you double-digit sacks. And since sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982, Cowboys defensive ends have accounted for just 15 seasons of 10 or more.

         But – there always is a but, isn't there? – nearly half of those 15 belong to Ware (7), then Jeffcoat (3), Haley (2), Ed Jones (2) and Tony Tolbert (1). Not exactly a laundry list of excellence. In fact, Ware is the Cowboys only defensive end with even one double-digit sack season since Tolbert's 12 in 1996. (Jason Hatcher's 11 in 2013 came as a 3-4 defensive end and rushing inside as a tackle on the nickel.) And for a further dose of humility, the last three Cowboys to lead the team in sacks have been Jeremy Mincey (6), DeMarcus Lawrence (8) and this past season Benson Mayowa (6).

         My, oh my.

         Not sure if every other team goes through this ordeal, but sure must be hard to find those pass-rushing defensive ends also capable of playing every down, meaning standing up on the outside against the run. Seems as the ones lean and agile enough with incredible bend to turn the corner, yet strong enough at the same time to set the edge at either defensive end or outside linebacker in a 3-4 go play basketball. Who wouldn't?

         Yep, finding those Von Millers or J.J. Watts ain't easy, and the job this year becomes no easier for the Cowboys, who don't go on the clock until the 28th pick in the first round. Just look at the NFL's list of 2016 sack leaders. Only 15 guys had double-digit sacks during this noted era of the pass. That's like an average of just less than .5 a team. And only two teams, Seattle and Arizona, had two guys landing in those double-digits.

         Here's the deal on these NFL sack leaders from 2016, too. Eight of them were originally drafted in the first round, two more in the second and two more in the third. What does that tell you? Better pick 'em high.

         But then again, the worst thing a team can do, especially in the first round, is force the issue. Meaning take a pass-rushing defensive end just to take a pass-rushing defensive end while passing over much better talent at another position. That will get you in draft trouble faster than anything else.

         Take one based on sheer need rather than talent, and as the Cowboys found out in 1994, then you end up with Carver. Or in 1996, after trading back into the second, grabbing with your first pick a Pittman. Or in 2009, with no first-round pick (See Roy Williams trade) and then trading out of the second for multiple draft choices to select Jason Williams in the third from mighty Western Illinois with your first draft pick that year.

         Or sheer desperation causing you to gamble in the second on a guy with repeated marijuana violations in college, the Cowboys now paying the price with 2015 second-round pick Randy Gregory, a guy with Ware's raw pass-rush potential, now suspended for the same violations for this entire upcoming season.

         Four cautionary tales. Desire can't create desperation. Need and availability don't always coincide.

         Now, what we mention next should not discourage the Cowboys from selecting a pass-rusher of some sort high in this upcoming draft. But this should cut down on that sheer desperation factor they've faced in the past.

         Mayowa, the team's 2016 sack leader, in his first major NFL playing exposure in his fourth season, racked up four of his six sacks in the final five games of the year. This came after he earned his game-day uniform back, having been designated inactive three consecutive times. Maybe he's on to something. Young David Irving, undrafted in 2015 and signed off Kansas City's practice squad, recorded three sacks over the last three games and has shown flexibility playing defensive end, defensive tackle and nose tackle on the change-up three-man line.

         Defensive tackle Maliek Collins, last year's third-round draft choice, who had to recover from a fractured fifth-metatarsal suffered during the offseason that severely limited him in training camp, earned 14 starts and registered four of his five sacks in the final nine games from inside. Veteran Tyrone Crawford, playing once again with a torn rotator cuff repaired after the season, did manage 4.5 sacks alternating between defensive tackle and end.

         And here just might be the defensive end wildcard: Young Mr. Tapper.

         Don't go to sleep on last year's first fourth-round pick. That's right, 34 picks ahead of Dak Prescott. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli concurs with me that before he suffered the back injury a week or so into training camp last year, the defensive end from Oklahoma was giving himself a chance to win one of the starting defensive end jobs.[embeddedad0]

         Well, he's back, out here at The Star working hard. Running hard. Marinelli has been intrigued with his "get off," and if he remains healthy, watch out for this guy, only a fourth-round pick because the Sooners played him as a 3-4 defensive end, meaning he had to two-gap at the line of scrimmage instead of one-gaping where the Cowboys put him outside in the 4-3.

         Then there is Lawrence, and who really knows? He powered through a bulging disk for the majority of the season's second half after serving his four-game, season-opening suspension for his banned substance positive test. He's still rehabbing from his second consecutive offseason surgery for a bulging disk.

         He, too, could be an ace in the hole … if healthy. Remember, he led the team with eight sacks in 2015.

         So if the Cowboys should pass on a first-round defensive end, one of three things should be considered before pulling your hair out:

Either there was no one left worth selecting that high, or two, the Cowboys think more of their pass-rush "possibilities" than taking a guy that high in the draft, or three, better talent was available at a position of higher need. And believe me, they have other needs.

So yep, here we go … again … the Cowboys continuing this never-ending search in the draft for pass rushers that began 57 years ago, hoping to land that guy opposing quarterbacks will be looking for upon breaking the huddle, knowing they must find just where "Mr. War Daddy" is lined up.

And you'd have thought over all these years finding more than just a couple of these "Daddies" with the number of swing they've taken would have been easier than finding Bigfoot.

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