FRISCO, Texas – About this time last year, threw a curve ball at you guys.
You were expecting the yearly prediction of just who was going to be Mr. Indispensable, the guy the Cowboys simply could not do without, and instead came Mr. Relevant, actually Misters, since picked two players, one on offense and one on defense. Guys the Cowboys simply needed to, well, let's see, explained it this way:
Someone or somebodies the Cowboys absolutely need to break out if they are to have some success; a player or players with either no or modest résumés the Cowboys desperately need to produce.
My two choices were Ezekiel Elliott and Benson Mayowa. Bingo on Zeke, right? He earned 1,631 rushing yards and the NFL rushing title, along with 15 rushing touchdowns. Let's also remember Dak Prescott at this time last year was heading into training camp sharing third-team quarterback snaps with Jameill Showers.
As for Mayowa, knowing DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory were facing suspensions to open the season, and realizing their desperate need for a pass rush, at least he'd been around the NFL block and figured to be a starter at right defensive end. Well, while he did eventually lead the team with a modest six sacks, Mayowa at least came on the final quarter of the season, recording four of six sacks in the last four games. That after getting benched for three straight (Nos. 9-11).
Also remember, the reason for dispensing with Mr. Indispensable: After going 3-1 in Tony Romo's four starts in 2015 and 1-11 in the games he didn't – this on the heels of a 13-3 season in 2014 – like how obvious would it have been to select Romo.
Same this year. The Cowboys desperately need Dak. Or is it Zeke? Probably both. Be hard to win without one or the other, and as I've previously said, on most teams you could pick the quarterback every year.
Thus, the creation of Mr. Relevant for 2016:* The guy(s) who must become relevant in the worst way this season if the Cowboys are to revert back to previous form.*
So here we go, trying to find that one guy whose emergence could become the impetus to the 2017 Cowboys becoming the first NFC East team to repeat as division champs since Philadelphia won four straight titles from 2001-04 …
That dominant guy playing that much-needed role if the Cowboys are to produce a double-digit victory total in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1995-96, when they went 12-4 and then 10-6. My gosh, that's 20 years ago. Because since then, this franchise has gone oh-for-6 when attempting to produce consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins. No lie.
Now, there are candidates for sure. Can Orlando Scandrick return to his pre-torn ACL form at cornerback and/or on the slot in the nickel? Can Tyrone Crawford become a dominate player either inside or out on the defensive line? Can La'el Collins, either at right tackle or left guard, play to the level of the first-round pick he should have been in 2015?
And this also becomes complicated by off-field issues. Will David Irving be able to overcome his four-game suspension to start the season? What's going to happen with linebacker Damien Wilson, who was coming on strong last season but very well could have derailed his season (career?) by being a knucklehead on the Fourth of July? How healthy is Charles Tapper's back? Same with Jaylon Smith's peroneal nerve?
Maliek Collins comes to mind as a top candidate. But heck, he emerged last season, coming out of the rookie blue to start 14 games a year ago at defensive tackle, finishing with five sacks and 13 QB pressures, third most on the team. In fact, in my books, he's probably one of just four sure starters on the defense, joining Sean Lee, Scandrick and Byron Jones.
So here goes: 2017's Mr. Relevant is …
The Dallas Cowboys need you in the worst way. Need you to become that guy you should have become following the 2015 season. Remember that guy that year? Started 13 of 16 games at defensive end his second season. Led the team with eight sacks, still the most by a Cowboys player since Jason Hatcher's 11 in 2013. He finished with 56 tackles, ranked second on the team with 31 QB pressures and was third with eight tackles for loss.
Man, he was coming on, becoming the much-needed disruptive force.
Then this: Offseason surgery to repair a herniated disk.
Then this: Suspended the first four games of the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Then this: About halfway through last year the repaired disk ruptured again, those close to him pointing out the severe pain he played with down the stretch, trying his level best to help this defense when most would have thrown in the towel, then waiting until the end of the season to have the disk repaired … again.
The Cowboys purposely kept him out of all the OTA and minicamp practices. Instead, he rehabbed – hard – trying to make doubly sure his back is A-OK for the start of training camp. They likely will not overextend him when camp begins July 24. But if watching how he was running, cutting, working on cords means anything, he'll be good to go.
And brother, the Cowboys need that 2015 version of DeMarcus Lawrence.
Sure, the Cowboys drafted defensive end Taco Charlton with the 28th pick. But let's remember, he's a rookie. Sure, Mayowa led the team last year, but with just six sacks. Jack Crawford is gone. Irving will miss the first four games of the season. Tapper hasn't played a single NFL down. Demontre' Moore is trying to save his NFL career. And Tyrone Crawford will play where needed.
But if D-Law can repeat his 2015 production, if he can improve on that, either on the right side or the left side, this Cowboys defense just might become something else. If they can just get that one guy, the one the opposing quarterback is looking for every time he breaks the huddle – *"Uh, OK, where is No. 90? *– this defensive front just might jump last year's 14th-ranked defense into the top 10.
To me, health willing, Lawrence is the most logical guy to become the first complete defensive end since DeMarcus Ware's final season in 2014, when even he was playing through multiple injuries. And the Cowboys sure thought that's what they had found when trading up from 15 to No. 2 in the second round of the 2014 draft to select Lawrence, then only to have him break his fifth metatarsal early in training camp, which caused him to miss the first eight games of the season.
But we do remember Lawrence's performance to close out the Detroit playoff victory that year, and how he was the one guy in the second-round playoff loss at Green Bay to harass Aaron Rodgers, sacking him once, pressuring him once and recording a tackle for a loss.
Yep, that guy. And if D-Law needs any extra motivation for this coming season, well, he's in the final year of his rookie contract.
What a time to emerge – to become relevant – for his good and the good of all the Cowboys.