After misses in free agency, could Cowboys think hard about Greg Hardy?

IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett’s body language and tone tells us he wants nothing to do with free-agent defensive end Greg Hardy.

Will Garrett rethink his position now?

The Cowboys desperately need to improve their pass rush, and bringing Hardy back on a one-year, incentive-laden deal is the best way to do that. Reality says quarterback Tony Romo has a finite number of years left in his career, and Jerry Jones certainly doesn’t want to waste one of them with yet another season with an abject pass rush.

DeMarcus Lawrence, who led the team with eight sacks and is the only player on the Dallas roster capable of putting consistent pressure on the quarterback, had offseason back surgery.

The Cowboys could have made moves in free agency to strengthen their pass rush, but the market exploded.

The New York Giants overpaid for Olivier Vernon, signing him to a six-year deal worthy of the best defensive end in free agency. Vernon had 7.5 sacks in 2015, fewer than Lawrence. Vernon also played on a Miami defensive line with Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh; he wasn’t getting consistently double-teamed.

The Cowboys are so desperate to sign a competent defensive end there was a tinge of disappointment at the club’s Valley Ranch offices after they didn’t get an opportunity to speak with veteran Chris Long before he signed a one-year deal with New England.

Long had just four sacks in his last two injury-plagued seasons and isn’t the difference between winning and losing the NFC East. Neither is defensive lineman Jack Crawford, whom the Cowboys are trying re-sign. There’s no defensive end left in free agency who is going to be a difference-maker.

The Cowboys have the fourth pick in the NFL draft, and they will probably get their choice of Ohio State’s Joey Bosa or Oregon’s DeForest Buckner, if they want a defensive end. The problem, of course, is neither one of those players is probably going to help the pass rush all that much next season.

Rookie pass-rushers tend to struggle in the NFL. Even the best ones take a year or two to figure out how to maximize their talent, and it doesn’t really matter whether they were taken at the top of the first round or the bottom. Look no further than J.J. Watt, who had 5.5 sacks as a rookie and 20.5 in his second season. Jason Pierre-Paul had 4.5 sacks as a rookie and 16.5 in his second season.

In the past 10 years, there have been six defensive ends selected with a top-five draft choice. Only Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah had at least eight sacks as a rookie. Four of those players had fewer than five sacks. In 2012, seven defensive ends went in the first round. Seattle’s Bruce Irvin had eight sacks, which remains his career high. No one else had more than six.

Just so you know, there were nine players who recorded six sacks in 2015, which tied them for 47th in the NFL.

All of that brings us back to Hardy. He has yet to visit another NFL club, and the longer it takes to sign him, the more his price should drop. One Cowboys front-office source said recently no final decision had been made about whether Hardy could return.


The source said the lower Hardy’s price goes, the more the Cowboys would be willing to contemplate bringing him back. There’s no interest in paying Hardy anywhere near what last season's contract might have been worth -- $13.1 million, if he had hit all of his incentives.

No team is going to pay him that. But the Cowboys could sign him to a one-year deal worth, say, $3 million and give him the same types of incentives, based on sacks and the same type of weekly roster bonuses.

Hardy played and practiced hard, but his penchant for being late to meetings and Saturday walk-through practices eventually proved disruptive.

If the Cowboys re-signed Hardy, they would likely get a much better player than they had last season. Hardy spent the last 15 games of 2014 on the commissioner’s exempt list and missed the first four games of 2015 after the league suspended him for violating its personal-conduct policy.

No player can miss that much time and play his best football. Re-signing Hardy would allow him to have a full offseason and training camp and position him to play his best football, especially with the prospect of signing a huge deal if he can reach double-digit sacks.

It’s not ideal for the Cowboys, but neither is going into next season with a raggedy pass rush.