Every offseason, some amount of turnover is expected on every NFL roster. The Dallas Cowboys will be no different in 2020, especially along the defensive line. The Cowboys will have three defensive tackles hitting the market when free agency begins on March 18th. One could make the argument that this the Cowboys biggest hole as they venture into the offseason.
Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and Christian Covington will all be free agents in 2020 and with a new coaching staff in place, the Cowboys could look to overhaul the position in an attempt to bring in pieces that fit what Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan wants to do defensively. Vice President of Player Personnel has already indicated that the Cowboys will be looking to find more size for the interior and place a higher value on the defensive tackle position.
There isn’t a group in free agency that is as deep as the defensive tackle group is in 2020. Names like Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Leonard Williams, Domata Peko and more will all be free agents once the new league year begins in the middle of March. There’s a lot of star power in this group of players, but as we know, the Cowboys don’t always chase names.
In order to sift through the number of names the Cowboys could look into this offseason, I tried to keep the focus on a few things; age, production, and potential cost.
Players that are over 30 won’t interest the Cowboys who generally don’t like to pay age. Secondly, we looked for players who were productive in the role the team set for them and tried to differentiate nose tackles from 3-techniques, cause honestly, the Cowboys could use one of each in free agency. Lastly, for years the Cowboys have gone into free agency looking for bargains. With Stephen Jones and Will McClay still at the helm, I don’t anticipate that changing unless they took a swing at the top free agent in the 2020 class, Chris Jones.
1. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
Though he still has a game to play under his current contract, Kansas City Chiefs Defensive Tackle Chris Jones is arguably the best defensive player set to be a free agent this offseason. Jones, a 3-technique in the Chiefs 4-3 scheme followed up a breakout 2018 campaign in which he had 15.5 sacks with nine more sacks in 2019.
Jones is the player that the Cowboys thought they were getting when they poached David Irving off of the Chiefs practice squad. He’s been one of the most disruptive players in the NFL the last two seasons and was Pro Football Focus’ sixth-best interior defensive lineman in 2019.
Among interior defensive linemen, Jones had the fourth most quarterback pressures in 2019 with 58 and the fourth most “stops,” which Pro Football Focus defines as a play that constitutes a loss for the offense. It could be a 3rd down play that gained yardage failed to pick up the first down or a tackle for loss or a sack.
Jones would likely demand a very rich contract if he becomes available on the open market, which could price him out of the Cowboys interest this offseason. However, if the Cowboys were going to break the bank on an outside free agent, this is the guy to do it on. Jones is one of the three best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and would be worth every penny if the Cowboys wanted to spend big.
2. Jarran Reed, Seattle Seahawks
Jarran Reed of the Seattle Seahawks is probably the next best 3-technique to be available but is an interesting case study. During the first two years of his career, he combined for just three sacks. In his third season, 2018, Reed exploded for 10.5 sacks for the Seattle Seahawks only to fall back to just two sacks in 2019.
Reed missed the first six games of the 2019 season after being suspended for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy related to an incident from 2017. That after undergoing surgery to repair a hernia in the offseason.
It’s not often that players with a 10 sack season find themselves hitting free agency, and the possibility still exists that the Seahawks offer him an extension. However, with the up and down play and the suspension, the Seahawks may look elsewhere for their interior defensive line production.
If he becomes available in free agency, the 6-3, 306-pound defensive tackle could be an upgrade for the Dallas Cowboys at 3-technique.
3. Vernon Butler, Carolina Panthers
Are you looking for some heft on the inside? Well, Vernon Butler might be the best option on that front. Butler played about 40% of the snaps for the Carolina Panthers in 2019, but he had a very productive season with six sacks, 32 tackles, and seven tackles for loss.
Those numbers might not be super impressive, but when you consider he was able to be that productive with a limited snap count, it becomes much more impressive. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find many 330+ defensive tackles with six or more sacks in a season. That usually isn’t their job.
At 6-4, 330 pounds, Butler profiles as a 1-technique (nose tackle) in a 4-3 or 3-4 but could also play some defensive end in a 3-4. He’s got the size to be the anchor in the run game, but also offers some ability to rush the passer on early downs.
With more teams opting to throw on first and second down, having a nose tackle that can get pressure on the quarterback could be very beneficial.
4. Danny Shelton, New England Patriots
Another player who has the ability to clog up holes in the run game is Nose Tackle Danny Shelton. In 2019, the New England Patriots run stuffer set a career-high for sacks with three and tackles with 61.
Shelton was one of the reasons for the success of the New England Patriots’ defense in 2019. Teams, other than the Tennessee Titans in the playoffs, had a really difficult time running against the Patriot forcing them to throw against the Patriots outstanding secondary. His size would be a very welcomed addition to the Dallas Cowboys who often struggled on the inside in the running game.
It’s not likely that New England would retain Shelton, as they often allow their players to walk in free agency to collect compensatory picks. If he does become available, the Cowboys should take a look. At 6-2 345 pounds, Shelton would help a lot to keep offensive linemen from getting to the Cowboys star linebackers.
The Cowboys have said they want to be a 4-3 team that offers multiple looks at opposing offenses. Getting a player like Shelton to anchor the middle could allow you to be more versatile elsewhere.
5. D.J. Reader, Houston Texans
Another player who has the ability to plug up holes in the running game is Houston Texans Nose Tackle D.J. Reader. Reader is a versatile player who can line up as the nose tackle or a defensive end in a 3-4. He does his best work in the running game but also recorded 2.5 sacks for the Houston Texans last season. Reader was Pro Football Focus’ fifth highest-graded interior defensive lineman in 2019, largely because of his work as a run defender.
Like Shelton, Reader is a big guy at 6-3, 347 pounds and like Shelton would do wonders for the Cowboys linebackers in their ability to flow to the ball carrier in the running game.
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You could make an argument that the Dallas Cowboys could bring in two defensive tackles in free agency and still leave room to draft one this offseason. They need a run defender and they need someone who can compete with or share snaps with 2019 second-round pick Trysten Hill.
A dream scenario for the Cowboys would be to bring in Jarran Reed, who may be discounted because of the suspension and drop in production and one of Butler, Shelton, or Reader. Adding Reed and a legit 1-technique defensive tackle to DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn (if they bring him back) would provide a tremendous front four that would give teams fits at each spot across the line of scrimmage.
The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of work to do this offseason to fill out their roster and improve it after an 8-8 finish in 2019. With several holes on the defensive side of the ball, they’ll need to be active and judicious as they look to upgrade their defensive line. There will be opportunities for them to do so as long as they’re willing to pull the trigger.