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Spagnola: No Matter What Draft Day, Lawrence Has To Be The Man

IRVING, Texas – Maybe this already has occurred, or maybe this will happen before the Cowboys set foot in California for the start of training camp in late July, but count on it either way.

         They will call him into the office and say in their best Uncle Sam impersonation, "I need you."

         Or maybe they will take the Bill Parcells negative motivation approach, asking him, "Are you any good? You one of those one-game wonders?"

         Or quite possibly either head coach Jason Garrett or defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli – and maybe both, each with the rather benign exterior of those Philadelphia pretzels, but down deep more like those hard Snyder's ones that make your molars bristle – tell him, you have to be the best, in so many words, player on this, in so many words, defense this year.

         The pressure is really on …

         De-Mar-cus Law-rence.


         See, most everyone is up in arms over the Greg Hardy 10-game suspension that most assuredly will be appealed by the NFLPA, and there would seem to be a good chance of having the grandstanding suspension at least reduced in half or a reasonable six games. Because suddenly it's become a must that the Cowboys select a pass-rushing defensive end in the first round of next Thursday's NFL Draft.

         Where ya'll been? We're talking a team that finished 28th in sacks last season with all of 28, their fewest since 2002 (24) and the fifth fewest since sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982, with three of those sub-28 totals occurring from 2000-2002, those three consecutive 5-11 seasons. In fact, the fourth (23) occurred in 1991, the impetus for the Cowboys trading for 49ers "bad boy" Charles Haley.

         So the Cowboys needed one all along, Hardy or no Hardy.

         But there is a huge problem if you start saying, well, if Hardy can't play until Thanksgiving, the Cowboys just have to take a defensive end in the first round.

The Cowboys don't select until the 27th pick. Their next pick comes in at No. 60. By then the field of pass-rushing defensive ends will be picked over more than the carcass of your Thanksgiving turkey. Seriously, unless of course someone falls because of a lingering injury or a propensity to smoke a little too much weed.

         Look, in the 54-year draft history of the Cowboys they have selected a total of 45 defensive ends. Only five not taken in the first round, and we're just counting 4-3 defensive ends here, ever amounted to more than a hill of beans: George Andrie, 6th round, 1962; Willie Townes, 2nd, 1966; Larry Cole, 16th, 1968; Harvey Martin, 3rd, 1973; and Tony Tolbert, 4th, 1989. If you are scoring at home, only once in the past 35 drafts have the Cowboys found a starting-quality defensive end in the draft outside of the first round.

          But their track record drafting defensive ends in the first isn't bad: Bob Lilly, 1961 (later moved to DT); Ed "Too Tall" Jones, No. 1, 1974; Jim Jeffcoat, 1983; Greg Ellis, 1998; Ebenezer Ekuban, 1999; DeMarcus Ware, 2005; and Anthony Spencer, 2007.

         First-round misses, there were a few: Shante Carver, 1994, the poster child for reaching just because they needed a defensive end; Kevin Brooks, 1985, later moved to defensive tackle; and Larry Bethea, 1978, who never became a starter during his six-year career.

         They don't need anymore Kavika Pittmans or Peppi Zellners or Rondy Westons or Oscar Sturgises or Colston Weatheringtons, non-first-round selections.

         See what I mean?

         DeMarcus Lawrence, step into my office.

         Why, the Cowboys were in the same boat at this time last year. They were all set at 16 to select Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier. Had his name on the card – yes, Shazier, not Johnny Football – but Pittsburgh pulls the rug out from underneath them at 15. The Cowboys saw him as a weak-side linebacker with pass-rush skills.

         After that, Plan B was to trade down into the low 20s, maybe as far as 30, to qualify taking Lawrence, who they had with a second-round grade. But no one would dance with them, so basically they threw up their hands and said, well, heck, let's just take this (boring) offensive guard from Notre Dame named Zack Martin. Ha, a Pro Bowl guard landed in their laps.

         But what did they do next? Used their third-round pick to trade up from the 15th pick in the second to the second pick to assure getting their pass-rushing defensive end. Yeah, I know, the foot injury limited Lawrence to just seven regular-season games and the two playoff contests.

         In essence, though, he was supposed to be their answer at defensive end last year when they were in the same boat struggling to find sacks after parting ways with DeMarcus Ware. And, now with the Hardy suspension, he has to be the answer this year, too. Gosh, they need him to be a player.

         Remember, there is no George Selvie this year, a guy who totaled 10 sacks over the past two seasons. Only the 11 of Jason Hatcher in 2013 is more. No more Henry Melton, who contributed five last year. The experience of Spencer at defensive end is gone.

         So at this point, with Hardy in limbo, the plan is Jeremy Mincey, who led the team with six sacks last year, at right defensive end and Lawrence on the left side with Jack Crawford, who made surprising progress last year when moved inside with two sacks before breaking his thumb.

         Lawrence flashed last year after missing the first eight games of the season on the reserve-returnable list. He would miss one more with a chest injury. But you could see that there was something there. He has the ability to turn the corner, and is stronger at the point of attack than most suspected of the rookie. Oh, and happened to walk past Friday when he was lifting with the defensive linemen. Amazing what an offseason of lifting will do for a rookie.

         In the final two games of the season Lawrence was coming close, finishing with four of his six quarterback pressures. And then there was the Detroit playoff game when he fumbled away his late fumble recovery that would have closed out the game, and then did so all on his own a few plays later when he registered the game-closing triple crown – a sack-forced fumble-fumble recovery with the Cowboys leading just 24-20.

          So, just in case you are feeling increased defensive-end desperation once the draft begins and the Cowboys do nothing to buffer your anxiety, maybe taking a cornerback there at 27 or a falling running back, maybe a linebacker instead of a defensive end, don't get all up in arms.

         Remember, and they need to remember, too, they do have Lawrence in their back pocket. Then hopefully Hardy at some point as well, although if the suspension stands, and even though he'd be eligible to play after missing the first 10 games, not able to practice with the club the first 11 weeks of the season, how ready would he be to play in Game 11 on Thanksgiving against Carolina? Not sure they can say, OK, Kraken, here, practice three days and go give me 60 snaps. That ain't happening. And for sure even after he does play that first game, no matter when it is, he's going to be sore the next week, so tack on two more weeks of preparation to that suspension, whatever it ends up being.

         Hard to cut corners (uh, cornerbacks, too) in the NFL.

         With that, here we go, Tampa Bay already is on the clock for Thursday's 7 p.m. start to the NFL Draft. The Cowboys are six days and likely another three hours away from handing in their card, and, unfortunately, at the mercy of what the first 26 teams do. The price you pay for going 12-4 and winning a first-round playoff game in this meek shall inherit the NFL.

         And no matter what happens when Roger Goodell goes to the podium to say, "With the 27th pick, the Dallas Cowboys select …"

         Keep De-Mar-cus Law-rence in mind.


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