There's no longer any question the road to NFL dominance runs through air control. As spread offenses and downfield routes became more and more dominant, the effectiveness of the pass has been highlighted brightly enough for everyone to take notice. Look at the top single-season QB ratings of all time: Five of the top ten were registered during the last five years, and seven in the last seven seasons. Fortunately for defensive coordinators, one factor has stood the test of time as a way to combat potent passing attacks: A ferocious pass-rush.
This approach is successful for two primary reasons. First off, the speed and consistency with which rushers get to the quarterback forces bad decisions and limits the time QB's time as he waits for his receivers to break away (Coverage is ALWAYS temporary. Getting open is simply a matter of time).
Secondly, it allows the defensive coordinator to allocate more resources to the secondary. If four guys can generate a consistent threat to the quarterback, the defense gains tremendous flexibility. The efficient pressure allows for frequent use of nickel and dime defenses which trot out more defensive backs, allowing teams to match up well against the ever-increasing number of offenses which flood the field with receivers.
The Cowboys don't have a consistent pass-rush. As constructed, they only have two reliable pass-rushers. One is Demarcus Ware, and he does his job as well as any fotball player alive. The other is Jay Ratliff, a Defensive End stuck at Nose Tackle in this defensive scheme. Ratliff gets plenty of hurries and hits, but has seen his sack numbers drop from 7.5 (2008) to 6 (2009) to 3.5 (2010) to 2 (2011). Anthony Spencer is a good player whose presence against the run helps the defense tremenodusly, but his pass-rushing accolades can more or less be narrowed down to a 3-game stretch in 2009.
The Cowboys need a significant pass-rushing presence to pair with Ware, and the best way to find one is through the draft. 2012's pool doesn't include any elite prospects, but quite a few good ones should be there for the Cowboys' choosing. Today, we'll take a look at four different Outside Linebackers the Cowboys could target in the first two rounds. This is not a full list, but just a primer. If the OLBs listed below are available, the Cowboys will think long and hard about bringing them to Arlington for the foreseeable future.
Courtney Upshaw, Alabama -- 1st round
Upshaw doesn't have an ideal build for an Outside Linebacker -- at 6'2, 265 he's stocky, and doesn't have the explosion and speed typical for an elite pass-rusher. But Upshaw is a very strong, relentless player who can both rush the passer and anchor against the run. He has a tendency to embrace his inner beast in big games, registering his best performances against elite competition.
Upshaw isn't great in coverage, so he may not fit Rob Ryan's mode, which calls for versatility. But he's an excellent football player who has drawn comparisons to Pittsburgh's Lamarr Woodley, and a popular Cowboys pick by mock draft prognosticators everywhere.
Whitney Mercilus, Illinois -- 1st round
While Upshaw looks the part of the solid, immovable defensive end, Mercilus is the prototypical bookend OLB. At 6'4, 261 he has the length scouts covet. More importantly, he has excellent first-step explosion, finds ways to squirm into the backfield (Jason Pierre-Paul showed everyone why that's important) and has a well-fueled motor which never leaves the top gear. He also has a tendency to force a lot of fumbles.
Mercilus isn't a very good bullrusher, struggles against the run and doesn't diagnose plays as well as you'd like a first-round OLB prospect to do. He is also a one-year wonder -- but really, so was Aldon Smith, who just finished off a phenomenal 14-sack rookie campaign for San Francisco. He's generaly projected to be taken somewhere between picks 15 and 25, but don't rule out the Cowboys falling in love with his pressure-heavy game.
Chandler Jones, Syracuse -- 2nd round
Jones is far from a sure thing, but as an athletic player whose stock was held back by a recent injury, he fits the Cowboys' mold. He's very tall (6'5), has a tremendous wingspan, plays hard and burts off the line. The issues: He's not very strong, lacks refinement and looks awkward as times -- as if he isn't comfortable with his body. But the athleticism is very evident, and he was productive when on the field.
The Syracuse product has only played Defensive End, and should be expected to struggle in coverage. Jones would be something of a project for the Cowboys, and would likely start as nothing more than an occasional pass-rush specialist. But his upside is as a 10-sack/year stud, and that potential will have many teams eyeing him.
Shea McClellin, Boise State -- 2nd round
A few months ago, McClellin was a nobody. He was seen as a system player who got by against inferior competition and would struggle against beter athletes. But in this brave new world of combines, pro days and Youtube scouts, his stock has jumped from the fourth round to the second in short order.
McClellin has good size (6'3, 260) and great speed (4.63 40). He's relentless -- a common theme in the prospects we're profiling, as we've been told it will be a common theme for the players targeted by Jason Garrett's regime. He piled up tackles all over the field and had a constant presence in the backfield, posting 12 tackles for loss and 7 sacks in his senior season. After blowing scouts away at Boise State's pro day, McClellin is coasting on serious helium. He may not have the quickness and strength to be an elite outside linebacker, but he could be a good one for a long time.
Stay tuned for more positional prospects from the WFAA team.We'll be concentrating very heavily on the draft in the coming weeks!