Every year as the offseason begins I like to look at the Dallas Cowboys roster based on what players they already have signed to contracts. This is a great starting point to then make assertions about the strengths and weaknesses of the team while guessing at free agency and draft priorities.
Yesterday I formed an offensive roster for 2021 using only players currently under contract with the Cowboys for next season. Today we’ll do the same with the defense, and it was far more challenging with the talent available.
Really, the only major issue for the Cowboys offense in terms of on-paper talent is getting some quarterbacks signed up. If the starting offensive linemen can get healthy and they acquire a little more depth at WR, Dallas’ offense will be a privilege for any NFL QB to run.
The defense is another matter.
Dallas has a big crop of starters and key roleplayers with expiring contracts in 2021; Aldon Smith, Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods to name the biggest losses.
In addition, many of the depth players who helped the Cowboys get through the season were only on one-year contracts. This leaves Dallas with a very thin talent pool right now and the need for plenty of work this offseason.
Current 2021 Defensive Ends:
DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Bradlee Anae
Dorance Armstrong, Ladarius Hamilton
While not overflowing with talent, DE is probably where the Cowboys are currently strongest for 2021. That’s thanks to a duo in Tank Lawrence and Randy Gregory that should be better than ever next season.
Armstrong has been an okay depth player but rarely making any splash plays, Fans are still anxious to see Anae, a 5th-round pick in 2020, get more playing time.
While not technically under contract yet, 2020 UDFA Ron’Dell Carter is almost a lock to be brought back as an Exclusive Rights Free Agent. I’ve throw Ladarius Hamilton on here for now as the only DE left with a deal, but that spot belongs to Carter once the Cowboys make it official.
The Cowboys will want at least one more quality backup here. Losing Aldon Smith and Tyrone Crawford this offseason will hurt and they still need insurance against any relapses in Gregory’s off-field activities. Bringing Smith back, as the team is reportedly desiring to do, will go a long way to shoring up the position.
If nothing else, expect a mid-round draft pick to go to another rotation piece and competitor for a future starting role. Dallas only has Gregory and Armstrong for one more season on their current deals so will want to put some more options in the pipeline for the future.
Current 2021 Defensive Tackles:
Trysten Hill, Neville Gallimore, Justin Hamilton
The young duo of Hill and Gallimore gave us reason for hope in 2020 but the depth behind them is staggeringly absent. The Cowboys need quality backups and perhaps some veteran insurance against the prospects’ development.
One option could be bringing back Gerald McCoy. While his release in August after a season-ending quad injury was harsh NFL business, McCoy appears to have no ill feelings with the team and both parties have been reported to want a redo in 2021.
Another potential returner is Antwaun Woods, who will be a Restricted Free Agent this offseason. The Cowboys could almost ensure his presence next year with the 2nd-Round tender, which would pay Woods over $3 million for the season. That’s a steal if he starts and solid price for a veteran backup.
Eli Ankou was a midseason acquisition via trade with Houston, sending them a 7th-round pick in return. He played a good chunk of the rotation at DT due to injuries and could also be back to compete.
Having recently spent 2nd and 3rd-round picks on Hill and Gallimore, respectively, Dallas may want to see those investments pay off before making another significant one. I doubt they’ll spend a high picks or major cap dollars on DT in 2021, but a few smaller moves are definitely needed to fill out the depth chart.
Current 2021 Linebackers:
Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Luke Gifford
Francis Bernard, Azur Kamara
Much like the DE and DT position, the Cowboys appear set at the top of the list but have depth concerns with departing free agents. And even then, not everyone is too confident about the returning starters.
The Cowboys appear to be hoping that firing Mike Nolan and bringing in Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator will help Smith and Vander Esch get back to Pro Bowl form. But even if the coaching is right up their alley, Leighton still has to stay healthy to contribute.
Those chronic injuries for Vander Esch make the depth at LB extra concerning, as do the expiring contracts for Sean Lee and Joe Thomas. If Dallas doesn’t bring either back then they’re left with grossly inexperienced players like Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard as their next-best options.
In fact, the Cowboys don’t even have enough linebackers signed up right now to stock the position for 2021. Azur Kamara was on injured reserve in 2020 after being an undrafted rookie. His presence on this list is merely because there was nobody left to pick from.
So clearly, Dallas has a lot of work to do here. They’re almost forced to lean on Jaylon and Leighton now given the lack depth, and even that prospect comes with some major concerns.
Current 2021 Cornerbacks:
Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Maurice Canady
Rashard Robinson, Deante Burton, Saivion Smith
Losing Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis would hurt the depth at cornerback but perhaps not as badly as it looks on the surface. A big reason for that is the unusual situation with Maurice Canady.
Canady signed a one-year deal in 2020 but then opted out of the season under the COVID-19 policy. He was expected to compete for a significant role after solid showings with the Jets in 2019.
Now that one-year deal is still in effect for 2021 and Canady, unless he’s released or there’s another opt-out, should finally be in the mix. He’s a big-bodied corner the way Dan Quinn liked them in Seattle, so hopefully he’ll at least replace Lewis as a depth piece.
The Cowboys would be far better off if Canady and Anthony are their 3rd and 4th corners. They’re good with Trevon Diggs in the starting lineup but should be looking for one more quality starter this offseason. In fact, many are projecting Dallas to select a CB with their 1st-round pick.
The rest of the competitors for roster spots got playing time in 2020 and viable options for the 5th and maybe 6th corners should emerge from the group. It will also be interesting to see if Quinn and the new defensive staff decide to keep Reggie Robinson at safety or move him back to corner.
Current 2021 Safeties:
Donovan Wilson, Darian Thompson, Steven Parker
If Xavier Woods leaves then the Cowboys will be in major need of a new starting safety. Donovan Wilson still has to prove he’s a long-term answer at the position and Darian Thompson has already prove that he’s far from it.
Even if Woods does get a second contract I am hoping it’s a small one. I’d rather see Xavier as a core backup and special teamer than starting next to Wilson. The Cowboys should be looking for a coverage specialist to pair with Wilson’s hard-hitting style.
Also in this group potentially is the mysterious Reggie Robinson. There was a lot of excitement about the athletic corner when he was a 4th-round pick in 2020 but he was converted to safety and kept off the field almost entirely throughout the year.
Changing positions is tough for anyone and especially a rookie trying to find his NFL bearings during a pandemic. Hopefully Robinson can now contribute in 2021 after being essentially redshirted.
Thompson isn’t the worst depth option to bring back but he feels like an impending cap casualty. Dallas can get back $1.2 million with only $100k in dead money by releasing Darian so I don’t expect him to return.
Steven Parker was a practice squad guy who got called up in October due to injuries. He remained on the roster each week until going on IR in December. Though he didn’t any memorable moments in 2020, Parker should at least be back to compete for a job in camp.