For several years now, interior defensive line play has been an issue for the Dallas Cowboys. Dating back to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 regular season and the Los Angeles Rams in the ensuing playoffs, the Cowboys have struggled to stop the run from the interior. Those issues continued to show themselves in a 2020 season that saw the Cowboys allow the second-most rushing yards at 158.8 per game.
The Cowboys look pretty well set on the edge with DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong, and Bradlee Anae under contract for 2021. Jerry Jones expressed interest in bringing back Aldon Smith, which gives the Cowboys a really nice group to work with on the outside. Therefore, finding interior players to bolster their run defense is of high priority this offseason. Their first opportunity to do so will be when NFL free agency opens at 4 pm E.T. on March 18th.
Because the Cowboys will get Trysten Hill back and Neville Gallimore showed some flashes, I don’t imagine they’ll need to look for a 3-technique type defensive tackle. So, we’ll be looking at guys who could be starters for the Cowboys at 1-technique (nose) defensive tackle.
So let’s take a look at 3 defensive tackles the Cowboys should target this spring.
1. Johnathan Hankins, Las Vegas Raiders
Johnathan Hankins is a name you might be familiar with from his time with the New York Giants. Most recently, with the Las Vegas Raiders, Hankins had a heck of a 2020. According to Pro Football Focus, among players who played at least 174 run snaps this season, Hankins finished ninth in run-stop percentage.
He tied for second in the league in “run stops” with 30. Per PFF, a “stop” is a play that results in a loss for the offense. That could be a tackle for loss or a tackle that prevented the player from gaining enough yardage to deem the play a successful play.
Generally defined as success rate, a successful play gains 40% of the necessary yardage on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third or fourth down.
That means that 30 times, Hankins stopped the ball carrier from gaining enough yardage to be deemed successful. For reference, DeMarcus Lawrence led the Cowboys defensive line with 26 run stops, followed by Aldon Smith with 23. The Cowboys’ best interior player had 15, and that was rookie Neville Gallimore.
The Raiders’ defense wasn’t anything to write home about, but they still allowed 25 rushing yards per game fewer than the Cowboys.
Hankins isn’t a player that you’re going to expect much from as a pass rusher. He tallied just 14 pressures and one sack in 2020. But that’s not why you’re bringing in a guy like Hankins. At 6-3, 340 pounds, he’s the kind of guy you can thrust into the middle of your defense and slow down opposing running games.
2. Dalvin Tomlinson, New York Giants
Dalvin Tomlinson of the New York Giants is another intriguing name on the younger side of 30 that the Cowboys could get good interior defensive line play from. The Cowboys have seen over the last several years just how good Tomlinson can be.
Tomlinson’s a bit lighter than Hankins at 318 pounds, but he brings good strength on the interior and a bit more as a pass rusher. Tomlinson had four sacks in 2020 for the Giants and finished tied for 18th in run stops. The New York Giants allowed just 111.4 rushing yards per game, which was 10th in the NFL for the fewest yards allowed.
Tomlinson will have a market with many teams, but he’s a guy the Cowboys should take a run at. He would immediately improve the Cowboys defensive line and help the linebackers a ton.
3. Poona Ford, Seattle Seahawks
When Poona Ford was coming out of Texas, he was a guy that I really hoped the Dallas Cowboys would take a shot at. Sure he’s short, and his arm length wasn’t great, but his production and fight jumped off the page. He used his leverage well and was able to get push and penetration from the interior.
Fast forward to 2020, Ford is a restricted free agent, and depending on the compensation required to sign him, I’d be very interested in the Cowboys taking a run at him. He helped bolster a Seattle Seahawks defense that allowed just 95.6 rushing rads per game, which was good for fifth in the NFL.
Ford had 18 run stops in 2020, leading the Seahawks defensive line. At 5-11 at 310 pounds, he may not have the size most would be looking for in a 1-tech defensive tackle, but he’s got the ability and the leverage to play inside.
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There’s a good chance that one or all of these guys returns to their team, but it’s also likely that all are free agents. The Giants have to figure out what they’re going to do with Leonard Williams. The Raiders are currently over the salary cap.
The Cowboys need to do something this offseason to get some help in the middle of their defense. The linebacker struggled in large part because the defensive tackles couldn’t keep them clean. Get someone on the inside who can help eat up blocks and make plays in the running game, and it should help everyone on the defense.