The Dallas Cowboys enter every season with high expectations. 2016 is no different, and sure enough there’s plenty of buzz around the Cowboys this summer. How is quarterback Tony Romo‘s back? Can tailback Ezekiel Elliott lead the NFL in rushing as a rookie? Has wide receiver Dez Bryant recovered fully from the lower leg injuries that wrecked his 2015 campaign?
There are plenty of questions surrounding the Cowboys’ defense as well — only on that side of the ball the questions are all bad. Who is going to rush the passer in Dallas? What’s the team going to do at middle linebacker? And most importantly, are the Cowboys finally, mercifully done piling up drug suspensions?
Number in parentheses denotes 2015 positional finish in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring.
As Reid Hansen of FanSided wrote, there’s good news and bad news where young defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (DL18) is concerned. “Lawrence is developing by the day,” Hansen said, “and he’s looking the part of the next great Cowboys pass-rusher. But wait…as we know, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Casa de Lawrence. After repeated failed drug tests, the Cowboys best (and possibly only) pass-rusher will begin the season on the suspended list.”
Yep. After racking up 55 tackles and eight sacks during his second NFL season, Lawrence chipped in a few failed drug tests and a four-game suspension to start the year. To his credit, the 24-year-old made no excuses while speaking to Drew Davison of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“My disappointment is it’s on me,” Lawrence said in his first public comments. “I messed up. I learn from my mistakes and I just have to move on and get everything right. You’ve got to admit to your decisions and your mistakes. I feel like that was the right thing to do because I feel like my team counts on me as a leader. I had to step up like a man and let them know I’m sorry.”
Lawrence has shown the potential to be a solid IDP DL2 when healthy, capable of a nice mix of tackles and sacks. If you plan for his absence in September and have depth rostered that will get you through September Lawrence might actually prove to be a value pick given his depressed asking price — assuming he stays clean from here out.
Lawrence wasn’t the only Dallas defender to earn a suspension to open 2016. In fact, his was peanuts compared to the 10-game bans handed out to second-year defensive end Randy Gregory (DL210) and middle linebacker Rolando McClain (LB45), who were each slapped with 10-game bans. That suspension for McClain is likely the end of the road for McClain in Dallas, and puts enormous pressure on Sean Lee (LB15) to make stops for the team.
Lee told Mike Leslie of WFAA-TV he feels like he’s up to the task. “Personally, I expect more of myself this year,” Lee said. “It was a frustrating year, going 4-12. Being able to find a way to get wins in the 4th quarter, causing more turnovers, that’s something we need to do, have to do. I’m ready to go, physically,” Lee said. “Hopefully I can take a next step within this Defense.”
It’s that “healthy” part that’s the rub with Lee. Given his talent and situation, if you could guarantee me that Lee would play in all 16 games he might well be my No. 1 fantasy linebacker in 2016. But the next time Lee makes it through 16 games will be the first time, and those durability issues make him a risky IDP play as a LB1.
When McClain was suspended the Cowboys brought back veteran Justin Durant (LB67), who spent 2015 in Atlanta after two seasons in Dallas. Whether the Cowboys like it or not, either Durant or third-year veteran Anthony Hitchens (LB82) is probably going to be on the field in subpackages this season. Whichever of the linebackers earns that three-down role is going to at least have value as depth in deeper IDP leagues.
It isn’t just Lee who will need to step up because of the suspensions that blew through the Cowboys. Strong safety Barry Church (DB30) told Kate Hairopoulos of The Dallas Morning News that he’s aware the pressure has ratcheted up on him as well.
“It’s definitely a blow to our team as far as those guys are three huge contributors to our defense especially,” Church said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to those guys to make sure they get everything right that they have to do. But right now we’re focused on camp and getting stronger and getting ready for the season. We definitely have guys that can step up in those spots and hopefully fill the void.”
Church piled up an eye-popping 107 solos back in 2013, in large part because the LB corps in front of him that season was a hot mess. This year’s situation is similar (and favorable) enough to land the 28-year-old in low-end IDP DB1 territory.
Deficiencies at linebacker could also help the fantasy fortunes of free safety Byron Jones (DB111), who Kevin Patra of NFL.com thinks could be in for a breakout season. “With his athleticism, speed and versatility,” Patra said, “Jones will become the biggest playmaker for a Cowboys secondary in desperate need of game-changing performers.”
Jones might be worth a late look in deep leagues, especially if the converted cornerback maintains his eligibility at that position in IDP leagues that require them.