Spagnola: Getting To The QB Must Be One Of Highest Offseason Priorities

MOBILE, Ala. – What we learned from the next round of NFL playoffs, Volume III, heading toward next Sunday's 50th Super Bowl while the only bowl synonymous with the Cowboys nearly 20 years to the day since last winning a Super Bowl is their staff relegated to merely coaching here in Saturday's Senior Bowl:

         Not only do you need a franchise quarterback, generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks breaks down even the best the NFL has to offer.

         Go ask Tom Brady.

         Go ask Carson Palmer.

         Go ask Peyton Manning.

         Yep, those guys, three of the NFL's greybeards, three of the best the league has to offer, a threesome totaling 37 years of professional experience, they'll tell you. Not one of them in last Sunday's two conference championship games was able to average even a paltry 6-yards per passing attempt. Not one of them was able to complete better than 57 percent of his passes, and of all things, Tom Terrific, not even 50 percent (48).

         And when it came to efficiency in these conference title games, good gosh, Palmer checked in at 41.3 and the indomitable Brady – we thought – was reduced to a deplorable 56.4 passer rating.

         Then there was the reinforcement of Newton's Law, this one, though Sir Cam Newton: Every quarterback in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.

         Right?

         Why, the Arizona Cardinals couldn't even knock the wide grin off his face, much less him down entirely more than once, the Carolina quarterback completing 68 percent of his passes, averaging 11.96 yards an attempt and finishing with a walloping 117.4 rating in the NFC game.

         No wonder the Panthers defeated the Cardinals, 49-15.

         No wonder, in reality, the only thing separating the victorious Denver Broncos in the AFC from the bewildered New England Patriots was a mystifying missed extra point by a kicker, Stephen Gostkowski's first missed PAT in his stellar nine-year career leaving the Pats on the short end of a most modest 20-18 tally.

          Newton was sacked only once in the NFC title game. He was hit just twice, enabling him to throw for 335 yards, with two touchdown passes while intercepted only once.

         The other three quarterbacks? Well, they were sacked a combined 10 times and hit a beaucoup more (31 times), that external force of pressure bringing them down to earth, literally. Two of them with a thud.

         This did not escape the attention of the Dallas Cowboys this week.

         Rushmen, right Rod Marinelli?

         "You bet," the Cowboys defensive coordinator and staunch proponent of somehow producing external pressure in the pocket.

         That is precisely why owner Jerry Jones was more interested in talking pass rush here at Ladd-Peebles Stadium than saying the club absolutely needs to take a quarterback with the fourth pick in the April 28 NFL Draft or even any other round.

         That is exactly why COO Stephen Jones was saying while watching his coaching staff mentor the Senior Bowl's North squad, "The first thing I totally agree with is you've got to have a pass rush. We had a better pass rush, but we've got to get better. However we get it, however we go about acquiring the players that are going to give us that pass rush is always going to be at the top of our list in terms of need."

         Seemingly realizing getting to the quarterbacks is as important, if not more, than getting one yourself.

         The Cowboys learned that lesson the hard way last year in their 26-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round playoff game, unable to contain quarterback Aaron Rodgers, even if he was operating on just one good leg. Their 28 sacks in 2014 were the team's fewest since registering only 24 in 2001 and 2002.

         That deficiency was reinforced this year, even though they stretched their constitution by signing free-agent defensive end Greg Hardy and selecting defensive end Randy Gregory in the second round, and remember already having traded up higher into the 2014 second round to nab defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. Still, the Cowboys finished with only three more sacks in 2015 than in 2014 (31).

          This lack of pressure therein provides reason why opposing quarterbacks this past season rocked a 94.2 passer rating; why the Cowboys only caused 11 fumbles, recovering a franchise-low three; and managed only eight interceptions – Jeff Heath leading with all of two – the eight matching the second fewest since 1997.

         And a prime reason why the Cowboys defense could not compensate for a rudderless offense – no Tony Romo for 12 of 16 games – in order to prevent that 4-12 record, their worst mark since the 1-15 of 1989 and the third-lowest win total in a 16-game season.

         So while everyone and their brother has wanted to know this week how does Carson Wentz look?, and certainly the Cowboys coaches, brass and scouts have been keeping a close eye on the North Dakota State quarterback many are predicting to be the team's pick at No. 4, closer eyes should have been focused in on anyone who can get to the quarterback.

         Now again, this is the Senior Bowl, limited to college seniors and fourth-year juniors who already have graduated, and by many estimations,  a group of some 110 players with maybe – maybe – a dozen ranked in the top 50 of the upcoming draft and maybe no more than three to five ranked in the top 25.

         So here are a few names to keep an eye on come Saturday afternoon during the actual Senior Bowl game, if pedigree and practice performances this week indicate anything, though not suggesting by any means any might be worthy of the fourth pick in the draft:

South DE Noah Spence (6-3, 261) of Eastern Kentucky by way of being indefinitely suspended at Ohio State by the Big Ten for repeatedly-failed drug tests, reportedly ecstasy.

North DT Matt Ionnidis (6-4, 292) of Temple, a 3-technique who was virtually unblockable the first few days of practice.

South DT Sheldon Rankins (6-2, 303) of Louisville, a whirling-dervish inside whose sprained ankle suffered Wednesday just might keep him out of Saturday's game.

South OLB Reggie Ragland (6-2, 252) of national champion Alabama, also was being tested rushing with his hand on the ground at defensive end, traits catching the Cowboys' attention here in 2005 with one DeMarcus Ware.[embeddedad0]

South DE Shawn Oakman of Baylor, the 6-9, 275-pound youngest of 12 children in his family who has been rehabilitating himself since an initial false start at Penn State.   

         North DE Carl Nassib (6-7, 272) of Penn State, younger brother of Giants backup QB Ryan Nassib, with an awfully quick first step, which is probably why he led the nation with 15.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and 19.5 tackles for losses.

         South DT Jarran Reed of Alabama (6-3, 313), a real load inside, a run-stuffer who would aid the pass rush on third-and-longs.

         So look, I get it. All eyes will be on Wentz come Saturday afternoon. And absolutely the Cowboys must find a suitable backup for Romo going into 2016. Yet again, is a raw rookie really the answer, no matter how high he's drafted? Think hard about that one.

         But whatever you do, just don't ignore the Cowboys Skittles Pox on the defensive front. Hardy is an unrestricted free agent. Defensive tackle Jack Crawford is an unrestricted free agent. Those two accounted for 10 of the Cowboys' 31 sacks. Jeremy Mincey, the 2014 sack leader with six who was shut out this year, is an unrestricted free agent. Starting 1-technique defensive tackle Nick Hayden is an unrestricted free agent. Gregory, beset by that opening-game high ankle sprain, still is looking for his first sack.

         The only two proven guys up front under contract are Lawrence, finishing with a team-high eight sacks and 31 pressures, along with 3-technique Tyrone Crawford, who had five sacks and 27 pressures.

         Gives you pause, don't it?

         "We have to get better in every way," Garrett said out here when asked what improvements are needed on the defensive front. "We have to defend the run better, we have to affect the quarterback more, we have to sack the quarterback more, we have to make difference-making plays, we have to pressure him where he's uncomfortable so we can make plays on the backend.

         "The players we have now have to get better, and we certainly have to add players to that group."

         Absolutely to all of that, especially the add players part.

         So sit up straight on Saturday watching this Senior Bowl, eyes – and mind – wide open. Quarterback tunnelvision ill-advised.

Consider this My Law.

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