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Cowboys' cost-effective approach to addressing pass rush has merits, limits

FRISCO, Texas -- A funny thing happened to me on Tuesday while scrolling through the internet. Somewhere it was mentioned that the Dallas Cowboys had more sacks in 2016 than the New York Giants.

Honestly, I can’t remember where I read that, but I immediately thought that was incorrect.

The Giants invested heavily on the defensive line before the 2016 season, re-signing Jason Pierre-Paul and adding Olivier Vernon with an $85 million contract. The Giants also signed defensive tackle Damon Harrison. Certainly they had more sacks than the Cowboys, right?

Nope.

The Cowboys had 36. The Giants had 35.

Now, sacks aren’t the end-all, be-all for stats when it comes to affecting the opposing quarterback. Pressures matter, too, although I think pressures can also be viewed as warning-track power in baseball. You’re close to getting there, but can’t quite finish. It’s not a 100 percent adequate comparison, but teams that talk about pressures are teams that generally don’t sack the quarterback as often. But maybe the Giants’ 17 interceptions, which tied for fourth in the NFL, came about in part because of the pressure from the defensive line. Maybe the Cowboys’ nine interceptions came in part because of the lack of pressure from the defensive line.

It’s a good debate, but let’s keep this to sacks since the definition of a pressure can vary from team to team.

Of the Cowboys’ 36 sacks, 30 came from their defensive line, led by Benson Mayowa’s six. Of the Giants’ 35 sacks, 25 came from their defensive line, led by Vernon’s 8.5.

So does this mean the Giants overpaid for Vernon? Not necessarily. And it doesn’t mean the Cowboys have a bargain in Mayowa, who signed a three-year deal with $3.3 million guaranteed.

It just is what it is.

But it shows the Cowboys’ approach to free agency, lamented by some fans who want them to sign the biggest and best every year, works to a certain degree. It’s just good enough to be good enough, if not great.

The Cowboys had 10 defensive linemen record at least one sack in 2016. The total 2016 cap value of those 10 players, according to ESPN Stats & Information figures, was $14.075 million. The Giants had eight defensive linemen record at least a half-sack in 2016. The total 2016 cap value of those eight players was $32.819 million.

Cost benefit matters in free agency. The Cowboys believe there are too many bucks put into free agency and not enough bangs. Cornerback Brandon Carr has been a solid player for the past five years, but at the $50 million it cost to sign him in 2012 as a free agent? Probably not.

Unless the Cowboys get lucky in the draft or move away from their free-agent philosophy of recent years and make a commitment to somebody like Pierre-Paul, the rotation that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli favors figures to remain in place.

Only three Dallas linemen played more than 500 snaps on the defensive line in 2016: Maliek Collins (656), Tyrone Crawford (624) and Jack Crawford (530). David Irving checked in at 487 snaps and had four sacks, five tackles for loss, 26 quarterback pressures and five pass deflections. Could he do more with more snaps in 2017, or would that overexpose him?

The biggest free-agent deal the Cowboys handed out last year was to defensive tackle Cedric Thornton for four years and $17 million, with $9 million guaranteed. He had 1.5 sacks, but pass-rushing is not his strength.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones is on record as saying he wants to bring in a top pass-rusher this offseason. He had one for the better part of a decade in DeMarcus Ware, who became the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. In 2015 Jones added Greg Hardy in free agency, but that was a failure. The Cowboys didn't take an early-round chance on a pass-rusher in last year’s draft, waiting until the fourth round to take Charles Tapper, who did not play a snap as a rookie because of a back injury.

Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence fell to one sack in 2016 after an eight-sack season in 2015, in large part due to suspension and injury. Maybe he'll put it all together in a contract year and become the guy opposing offenses have to worry about every snap. Maybe Tyrone Crawford can stay healthy and find his form. Maybe Tapper can be an answer. Maybe Irving is about to break out.

Those are all big maybes.

But so is spending huge in free agency.