By the end of last season DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory were the two best pass rushers on the Cowboys roster. Can Dallas trust them as a starting duo in 2021, or should this be an area of concern this offseason? Our next stop in Inside the Star's Position Preview series is with the defensive ends.
One of the big stories to start Dallas' 2020 season was the career resurrection of Aldon Smith. After a five-year absence from football, Smith signed a one-year deal to attempt a comeback with the Cowboys. He got off to a hot start with four sacks in just his first three games.
However, Aldon's production soon waned as opposing teams adjusted and perhaps his long layoff from the game showed side effects. Smith would only have one more sack the rest of the year and wasn't making the same impact in pressuring quarterbacks or disrupting backfields.
Thankfully, Randy Gregory's return in the middle of the year helped to offset Smith's decline. Once he came off suspension, Gregory quickly started making plays and helped the Cowboys make a late-season push in their dysfunctional division.
2021 Defensive End Contract Statuses
- Free Agents
U = Unrestricted, R = Restricted, E = Exclusive Rights
Now we head into the offseason with Gregory under contract for an incredible discount at just $1 million against the salary cap. This is the Cowboys' reward for their loyalty to Randy; an impact edge rusher at a fraction of market price.
Dallas needs that bargain on the other end of the defensive line because of DeMarcus Lawrence's massive $25 million cap hit. While you'd certainly like to see more sacks from him given that number, Tank is still a consistent playmaker and would post bigger sacks totals if he had more support from his surrounding cast.
The question is if the Cowboys can rely on Lawrence and Gregory as starters in 2021 or if they need to keep at least one more proven pass rusher in the mix. Behind them right now are only little or never-seen prospects and projects.
The other two veteran defensive ends, Aldon Smith and longtime Cowboy Tyrone Crawford, are both set to become free agents in March. Neither will likely be able to demand significant money on the open market, so perhaps Dallas will try to re-sign at least one of the them if the price is low enough.
Crawford doesn't do much for the pass rushing rotation; his value is more in being able to play multiple DL positions. If you want someone who can help with pressuring the QB than Smith makes way more sense.
This is especially true if you believe that Aldon Smith, even at age 32 this September, could be even better in 2021 because of his low mileage. While he will never be the same dynamic player he was early in his career, Smith may have a solid 16-game season in him after shaking the rust off in 2020 and continuing to get back to NFL shape.
The problem is if another team believes that as well. Dallas likely won't get into a bidding war over Aldon given their needs and salary cap issues at other positions.
Without Crawford, Smith, or any fresh faces added this offseason, Dallas' DE depth chart will be rather dubious. That would leave Dorance Armstrong, little more than a bit player the last three seasons, as the most experienced backup.
The other two, Bradlee Anae and Ron'Dell Carter, were both rarely-used rookies last season in the few games they even got to dress for. While both sounded promising coming out of the 2020 draft season, neither had an opportunity to show much in Mike Nolan's defense.
Dallas may be banking on their new defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, to get more out of the current defensive line talent. Having spent recent mid-round picks on guys like Anae and Armstrong, the Cowboys may want to give them room to grow with Quinn's influence.
But as we've seen in recent years, the Cowboys have been willing to gamble on veterans like Smith and Robert Quinn and were rewarded. They certainly won't be in the market for the likes of Jadeveon Clowney or Leonard Williams, but maybe Dallas looks for a bargain with an aging pass rusher like Justin Houston or Ryan Kerrigan?
The 2021 Draft is another opportunity to improve. The Cowboys might have their pick of the best pass rusher in the class at 10th overall. Locking up a quality DE for the next 4-5 years on a rookie contract would make a fiscally smart pairing with DeMarcus Lawrence.
Unlike some other positions on defense, at least having Lawrence and Randy Gregory provides some confidence for the defensive ends going into the offseason. The depth is shallow enough that at least one additional talent is probably needed, but it's a far better situation than what you see at linebacker or in the secondary.
Hopefully, Tank and Gregory provide the foundation for an improved Cowboys defense in 2021.
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Other Cowboys 2021 Position Previews
DT | LB | CB | S
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