With Dallas Cowboys training camp starting next week in Oxnard, California, we offer up a position-by-position preview.
Roster spots available: eight, nine or 10
Key question: What kind of production will the Cowboys get from Hardy?
Had Hardy's suspension remained at 10 games, then it would have been difficult to expect him to make a dramatic difference to the Cowboys. Now that it is four games, then he can be a game-changer. While he has some financial incentive to rack up sacks this season, Hardy is on a one-year contract and has an incentive to put up big numbers so he can get a big contract from the Cowboys or another team in 2016 and beyond.
Last season, the Cowboys had a number of players either in the final year of their contracts or on a one-year deal who produced. That is a real incentive.
Hardy has 27 sacks in his last 32 games. Last year, Mincey led the Cowboys with six sacks and Dallas recorded just 28 as a team. They need to affect the quarterback more. A gimpy Aaron Rodgers not getting pressured in the playoff game last January still haunts this team, which is why they needed Hardy, baggage and all.
Hardy has the ability to play all four spots along the defensive line and that will allow Rod Marinelli to seek out potential mismatches in pass rushing situations. The Cowboys look to have a good blend of pass-rushers in Hardy, Mincey, Lawrence and Gregory, but Hardy needs to be the leader even if he is missing six games.
Quick thought: The Cowboys are trying to build the defensive line the way they have built the offensive line in recent years. Hardy was their prime free-agent pick but he's on a one-year "make good" deal that can help him and the Cowboys if it works out. But the best way to build is through the draft.
The Cowboys figured that out on the offensive line by taking Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin in the first round after going the free-agent route to patchwork a line together. In the past two years, the Cowboys have taken Lawrence and Gregory in the second round and hope to see them blossom.
Lawrence did not have a sack in the regular season but came on strong in the playoffs. Gregory fell to the second round because of off-field problems but showed potential in the spring.
In addition to Hardy, Mincey, Tyrone Crawford, Hayden and Jack Crawford are set to be free agents when the season ends. Tyrone Crawford is a key piece to the future. Hardy could be. The other players are "bridges" to the future. The building of the defensive line has to continue.