The Cowboys defense had a strong 2018. They were in the top half of the league in every important category including sixth in points. Dallas forced 20 turnovers and the pass rush got home for 39 sacks. If the team could keep all their defensive linemen healthy and out of the commissioner’s crosshairs, this could be a scary unit. Instead, they will go to camp without tackle David Irving who was released after his most recent suspension, end Randy Gregory who is once again suspended indefinitely and end Demarcus Lawrence who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
The only good news for Dallas is that Lawrence should be ready for the start of the regular season or very close to it. Having him available in September is vital to a Cowboys team that wants to get out of the gate quickly. Over the last two seasons, Lawrence has been a difference-maker. He missed games due to injuries in two of his first three years but blossomed into an elite three-down end in 2017. He stands up well versus the run despite being a bit undersized, but it is big-play production that makes Lawrence stand out both on the field and in the box scores. Over the last two seasons, he has accumulated 25.5 sacks, forced 6 fumbles, recovered 3 and intercepted a pass.
Lawrence provides outstanding IDP value as well. He has completed a full schedule of games three times in the last four seasons. In each of those years, he reached at least 35 solo tackles, 20 assists and, 8 sacks. His 15 sacks in 2017 fell one short of tying for the league lead and helped Lawrence to a top-5 rank among linemen. Even nursing the sore shoulder he got to the quarterback 10.5 times last season. With a career-best of 42 solo tackles, Lawrence posted a second consecutive top-10 in 2018. The shoulder situation is a reason for some concern. The Cowboys are going to take every precaution with their star end, which means he may not be cleared for the opener or could be on a snap count. Once fully healthy, however, Lawrence is a player that can help both his team and ours win championships.
Randy Gregory could be reinstated at some point this season, but the Cowboys are no longer counting on him for anything. Instead, they have signed Robert Quinn to start opposite Lawrence. Some IDP experts believe Quinn is past his prime and has been a disappointment since his hot streak with the Rams ended back in 2014. There may be some truth to that theory but I am not yet ready to throw in the towel on Quinn. Consider where he has been over the course of his eight previous seasons. From 2012 through 2014, he was considered one of the best at the position. He averaged 38 tackles, 6 assists, 13 sacks and, 5 turnovers during that stretch with a career-best of 50-7-19.5 and 9 turnovers in 2013.
Quinn dealt with a variety of ailments early in 2015, most of them related to a back issue that would eventually end his season and require surgery. He returned in 2016 and was off to a good start when a week four shoulder injury caused him to miss time. Quinn returned to the starting lineup in week nine but was not fully healthy. Two games later he was hospitalized with seizure-like symptoms that were eventually blamed on dehydration. He came back from that to record sacks in consecutive games before suffering a concussion that would keep him out the rest of the season.
At the beginning of 2017, the Rams coaching staff decided to limit Quinn’s playing time in order to keep him healthy. They also moved to a 3-4 scheme and asked Quinn to play linebacker for the first time in his career. By week five he had collected two and a half sacks despite not playing more than 45 snaps in any game. By week 11 he had become more comfortable at the new position and returned to a normal three-down role. Over the next four games, Quinn recorded five sacks and forced a pair of fumbles. After the season he was traded to Miami.
Last year Quinn was healthy for a full season for the first time since 2014. He got off to a slow start with the Dolphins but once he was comfortable in the scheme, he got hot. Over a six-game stretch starting in week 10 he put up five and a half sacks. With the Dolphins changing up their scheme, Quinn was traded to Dallas this offseason.
Some will argue the glass is half empty when it comes to Quinn. What I see is a 29-year old that has been rather productive when healthy; especially when playing in a scheme that fits his skill-set. He is as healthy entering training camp this summer as he has been in several years and for the first time in a few seasons, will be playing defensive end in an attacking 4-3 scheme that fits his style perfectly. At the very least Quinn is a talented player with high potential and is exactly the kind of player to target as a backup in the late rounds.
Taco Charlton looks to be the third man at defensive end this year, though he could have some competition for that spot in the pecking order. A first-round pick by the Cowboys in 2017, Charlton has been a disappointment thus far. He was fairly quiet as a rookie totaling 15 tackles, 4 assists, 3 sacks and forcing a fumble. When the team desperately needed Charlton to step up in year two, he actually regressed. In the young man’s defense, he battled a shoulder injury that started bothering him in August and would eventually land him on IR and picked up a thumb injury in early October that added to his struggles. Charlton is on track for training camp in what could be a make or break season.
In an effort to be prepared for anything, the Cowboys have several players competing to fill out the rest of the pecking order at defensive end. The guys with the best shot of making the final roster are last year’s fourth-round pick Dorance Armstrong, rookie fifth-round selection Joe Jackson, seventh-round rookie Jalen Jelks, and veteran Kerry Hyder Jr. Hyder is the only member of this group with significant experience. He had eight sacks for the Lions in 2016 and was on the way to earning a starting job in Detroit the following year when he was lost to a torn Achilles during the preseason. Hyder saw little action with the Lions in 2018 and was added by the Cowboys as a free agent.