FRISCO, Texas – The Cowboys have made it no secret they'd like to find a difference-making pass rusher – a 'war daddy,' as described before by team owner/general manager Jerry Jones.
Truthfully, that makes them no different from 31 other NFL teams. Everyone's always looking for new ways to pressure the quarterback.
"Make no mistake about it, it's an important player for you," Jones said last weekend at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "It's almost like not having a quarterback."
Prioritizing needs is one thing. Accomplishing them is another. The Cowboys recognize how difficult it is to acquire an elite rusher. The good ones are rarely available in free agency, and regardless, the front office has emphasized their reluctance to set the market each year. They've rarely been big spenders in recent years.
The Cowboys ranked 13th in the league last season with 36 sacks, a solid improvement over the previous two years: 31 in 2015 and 27 in 2014. On Tuesday they issued an exclusive rights tender to David Irving to keep the promising defensive end/tackle in Dallas next season. Charles Tapper, a 2016 fourth-round pick, is aiming to be ready for the start of the offseason program after missing his rookie season with a back injury. That's a start.
They also have question marks in their defensive line rotation. Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford are set to be unrestricted free agents. DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford had offseason surgery, though head coach Jason Garrett said both players are recovering well.
Rod Marinelli's scheme relies on a revolving group of fresh linemen. Only three players played over 50 percent of the defense's total regular-season snaps: tackle Maliek Collins (61.9 percent), Tyrone Crawford (58.9 percent) and Jack Crawford (50.2 percent).
Of course, another 'war daddy' rusher – a player whom offenses must account for every single snap – could help reshape the line.
That's easier said than done. Given the Cowboys' modest cap space and the team's general philosophy against major free-agent spending, team executive vice president Stephen Jones has said the draft might be their best option to add depth. Of course, picking near the bottom of each round – the result of an outstanding 13-3 season – means a smaller pool to potentially choose from on draft weekend.
So, how do you find one?
"You get a little more aggressive on going and getting them, all of which is not as sound as getting him with the first pick in the draft," Jerry Jones said. "But when you've got to be imaginative on positioning that, my experience has been there's more risk involved if you're willing to take it."
The Cowboys have taken calculated risks at the position before. In 2014 they traded up and the second round (and relinquished their third-rounder, too) to draft Lawrence. In 2015 they drafted Randy Gregory, arguably that class's best pass rusher who dropped due to off-the-field concerns.
Gregory has since been suspended twice by the NFL – initially the first 14 games of the 2016 season, and now at least one year for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse. Lawrence has been a solid addition when available; he led the team with eight sacks in 2015 but missed nine games in 2016 due to a four-game league suspension and recurring back problems.
The Cowboys figure to add at least one new pass rusher somewhere, but how – whether it's free-agent dollars or draft picks – remains to be seen.
"At the end of the day you want to get pressure," Stephen Jones said. "An edge rusher, you want them to get pressure at the end of the day and we all know how important that is in our game right now."
"Now that's a lot of work, especially where we're drafting, and usually people don't let those guys go in free agency. So we've got our work cut out for us."