Following the first big wave resulting from the first major splash from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency, the franchise can now ponder whether or not it’s defense is now Super Bowl-caliber.
The early answer isn’t as simple as “yes” or “no.”
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I would offer that the answer is “quite likely.”
This week’s signing of controversial defensive end Greg Hardy to a one-year, incentive laden contract certainly pushes a defense that was a little better than mediocre last season to possibly very good.
Yes, Hardy is that good and he’s perfectly built to play in defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 alignment. The former Carolina Panthers edge rusher certainly brings an element not seen within any Dallas defense since franchise sack-leader DeMarcus Ware was healthy and still in his prime back in the 3-4 days.
Hardy stands 6-4 and weighs in at about 275 pounds. By comparison, Ware stood at the same height but gave up almost ten pounds to Hardy.
At this point, Dallas seems to have a pretty strong leg-up on where it was a year ago after having just released the aging and wearing down Ware, who ended up signing with the Denver Broncos upon his release.
Things look different now, what with Hardy stepping in to join Mincey, who had 6.0 sacks during his inaugural season with the Cowboys, and also second year veteran and 2014 second-round draft choice DeMarcus Lawrence.
Yes, the edge rushers in Dallas should be both better and deeper in 2015, but that’s not the whole story by a long shot.
This is also a team that might very well be deeper and better at defensive tackle than what many are calculating.
You’re already aware of what kind of season a then-unproven defensive tackle named Tyrone Crawford had in 2014. Let’s just say that he played better than his 3.0 sacks would indicate. Those three quarterback take downs are a career total, but remember that Crawford played defensive end in the old 3-4 scheme as a rookie in 2012 before missing the entire 2013 campaign with a ruptured Achilles injury.
If the former Boise State defensive lineman can stay healthy for his first shot at continuity within a system best suited for his skills, he should double his career sack total by the end of Thanksgiving Day.
There’s new faces along the defensive line that could weigh heavily in pushing this defense to new heights as well.
Defensive tackles Amobi Okoye and Chris Whaley spent last season recovering from both serious illness and injuries, respectively, and should be poised to become part of Marinelli’s stable of “rush men” during the ’15 season. It’s hard to know what expect from these two, but there’s certainly upside as both fit the dynamic of 4-3 interior linemen that look like they can at least contribute sooner than later.
With unrestricted free agent cornerback Sterling Moore now having signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the defensive backfield looks a bit shaky with cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne looking at very uncertain futures, albeit for different reasons.
Yes, there’s the underrated Orlando Scandrick still in the fold, but in terms of cover guys that are highly trusted, he’s about all that we can see right now. Second year veteran Tyler Patmon and recently signed Corey White should figure into things somehow, but it’s far too early to project either of these players as major contributors.
While the safety positions look to be slightly better fortified, Peter Schrager of Fox Sports has the Cowboys selecting Alabama safety Landon Collins in an effort to bring a difference-maker to the Cowboys deep secondary.
Wasn’t it a similar story back in 1992, at least in some ways?
Instead of Hardy, it was Charles Haley who was the perfect pass-rushing castoff that changed the overall capability of the Cowboys front seven. A group that could stop the run but not rush opposing quarterbacks in 1991 was launched straight to a blowout victory in Super Bowl XXVII just a year later.
Heading into ’92, the secondary was still an evolving area with veterans like James Washington and Issiac Holt soon to be replaced by rookies named Darren Woodson and Kevin Smith.
The bottom line is that the Cowboys are a better defense today than they were up in Green Bay when they came very close to beating the Packers in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.
Tomorrow, or at least following the ’15 NFL Draft next month and any other free-agent signings, this defense just might be good enough to finally reach the Super Bowl.