How Rob Ryan’s 3-4 Defense Could Result in Cowboys Drafting Pass-Rusher Early
The list of potential first-round targets for the Dallas Cowboys seems to have been narrowed down to a small group. Rumors and conventional wisdom suggest the team is targeting LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson in a trade up (perhaps to No. 6 with Cleveland), but will likely select between Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara and USC tackle Tyron Smith if they remain in their current draft slot. In the event that the Cowboys trade down (which is something they apparently want to do quite a bit), they have been rumored to be targeting Wisconsin DT/DE JJ Watt, Cal DT/DE Cameron Jordan, Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi and even Florida center/guard Mike Pouncey.
There may be one scenario we are severely overlooking however: the potential for the ‘Boys, with a defense that ranked in the bottom half of most important team statistics last season, to target an elite edge-rusher. I think a lot of people (myself included, perhaps) have overlooked the fundamental differences between Rob Ryan’s scheme and that of Wade Phillips. Both run 3-4 defenses, but they are radically different in terms of alignments, blitzes and overall philosophy. With all of the creative personnel groupings Ryan figures to run in passing situations, the Cowboys will benefit from acquiring another dominant pass-rusher more than they would have when Phillips was still in town.
Now I’ll be the first to argue the Cowboys do not need to place a very high priority on the outside linebacker position. We all know of DeMarcus Ware’s dominance, but the perception that Anthony Spencer had a horrible 2010 season is just plain wrong. He failed to live up to extremely high expectations, but I still gave him a solid B (84.6 percent) in my 2010 Outside Linebacker Grades. Spencer rushes less than most 3-4 outside backers, dropping into coverage on 18.1 percent of all snaps last season (and 29.5 percent of pass plays). Spencer’s rate of pressures also increased by 33 percent from 2009, meaning the lack of sacks was just a fluke. Too often, we judge pass-rushers on their sack totals, which is kind of like grading running backs on the amount of fumbles they lose.
On top of that, I also have a slight (and by ‘slight,’ I mean ‘massive’) man-crush on Victor Butler. I ranked Butler as the Cowboys’ third-most efficient player in my 2010 Player Rankings, ahead of Felix Jones, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jay Ratliff, among others (remember, that relates to efficiency, not overall production). Butler recorded more pressures-per-rush than Ware, and did not miss a tackle all season. Some may argue that Butler’s success is largely the result of recording a lot of snaps passing downs, but he actually was on the field for a higher percentage of run plays (39.5 percent of his snaps) than either Ware or Spencer. By the way–I’m tooting my own horn here–you aren’t getting these numbers or analysis anywhere else.
Even if Rob Ryan is as fond of the Cowboys’ outside linebackers as me (which I think is the case), Ryan’s unusual scheme means you cannot rule out the acquisition of another edge-rusher. As I have written prior, the Cowboys reportedly have a lot of interest in Missouri’s Aldon Smith, viewing him as this year’s Jason Pierre-Paul (who they had ranked pretty highly on their 2010 Big Board (<–actual photos of the board). He is higher on their board than even UNC’s Robert Quinn.
These are reasons I will have Smith as one of my primary “sleeper” candidates to come to Dallas (I will publish an article with my others tomorrow). Nonetheless, I would still consider Smith a huge underdog to get drafted by the Cowboys. More likely is that the ‘Boys will target an outside linebacker (if they even want one) in the second round or later. I personally like both Akeem Ayers of UCLA and Martez Wilson of Illinois because of their ability to play inside. What better way to indirectly bolster the outside linebacker group than by drafting a versatile backer to start inside but possibly move outside in the future?