Dallas Cowboys: This defense will win games in 2015


The Dallas Cowboys recent success is often attributed to the investment the team has made on the offensive line. At a base level, winning football games in the NFL is about protecting your quarterback and pressuring the opposing quarterback. If you can do both those things, you can make some noise in this league.

The Cowboys are lauded for having three first-round talents on the offensive line, but no one is talking about the three first-round talents they’ve acquired for the defensive line. It happened fast, and the process was a little unorthodox, but Greg Hardy, Demarcus Lawrence, and Randy Gregory are all first-round talents, even if none of them were drafted there.

More from The Landry Hat

Hardy was the 23rd defensive end taken in the 2010 NFL draft, picked up in the sixth round by the Carolina Panthers. Of that class, only he and Jason Pierre-Paul of the Giants have made a Pro Bowl. Coming out of Ole Miss, Hardy was a clear first-round talent, but teams were wary of his reputation for inconsistent effort and immaturity, so he fell down the boards.

Many projections leading up to the 2014 NFL draft had Lawrence going in the first round. Some thought the underclassman out of Boise State could improve his draft stock by remaining in college for another developmental year, but it was not uncommon to see him as a low-first round need selection.

Nebraska’s Randy Gregory was a consensus Top-15 talent this year before he tested positive for marijuana around the time of the pre-draft scouting combine.

The Cowboys got all three first-round talents without spending a first-round pick. They traded away second- and third-round picks for the privilege of drafting Lawrence 34th overall last offseason. They signed Hardy in March to a free agent contract that could net him as much as $11.3 million in 2015. They spent a second-round pick on Gregory in the May draft.

The investments aren’t as linear as what the team did to beef up the offensive line, but make no mistake – the cap space they’re allotting to Hardy and the three high-end draft picks they used to get Lawrence and Gregory are premium organizational assets, and they were spent on legitimate first-round talents.

People aren’t seeing that, though, because the team didn’t spend actual first-round picks to acquire these players. While many predict the Cowboys defense should improve this season, no one expects it to be a Top-10 unit.

Why not, when the talent infusion along the defensive line is just as impressive as the one on the offensive line? No one expected Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin to all make the Pro Bowl last season. Once they did, it seemed obvious. They helped a great quarterback become the league’s leading passer, turned a fine running back into the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, and crowned a dazzling receiver as the franchise’s single-season touchdown king.

Great play by the big fellas up front made everyone behind them better. It always does. But most NFL analysis is reactive, not predictive. No one saw 2014 coming, because TV experts typically have to see something happen before they say anything about it.

In 2015, the Cowboys’ defensive line can do the same for the team’s linebackers and defensive backs. No one will say that now, but that’s only because no one has made the connection that the defensive line has been infused with three first-round talents, similar to the offensive line. Why not? Because none of them were drafted in the first round. And, of course, because it hasn’t happened yet.

Here’s a prediction for you: If the Dallas line can get 35 sacks, the Cowboys will field a Top-10 defense in 2015. Why? Because when the big fellas up front play well, they make everyone else better.

By playoff time, people will say Brandon Carr had a “renaissance.” People will say Morris Claiborne “finally figured it out.” People will marvel that J.J. Wilcox made the Year 3 jump. Barry Church will make the Pro Bowl. People will wonder why they fretted about the season-ending ACL injury to Orlando Scandrick – this secondary was so deep!

Winning in the NFL, at its core, is as simple as protecting your quarterback and pressuring the other team’s quarterback. Surely, we saw that last year. Both sides of it. The offense, flush with heavy organizational investment along the line, dominated opponents. The defense, a patchwork of late draft picks and mid-tier free agents, fought hard to achieve average.

The Cowboys have made the investment along the defensive line, and now boast three first-round talents in the rotation. Two years ago the defense was blowing wins left and right. Last year, they were good enough to not lose games. Don’t be surprised if they flat-out win a few in 2015.

Next: Dallas Cowboys: Predicting Pink Slips for 15 Players, 75-man roster cuts