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Dallas Cowboys Defense: Keep One, Cut One, Trade One

Heading into the 2021 offseason there are few units in the NFL with as many question marks as the Dallas Cowboys defense. From their defensive interior, to their linebackers, to the expected turnover in the secondary, the Cowboys have a lot to figure out this Spring.

As we look to what the Cowboys should do on the defensive side of the football, let’s look at a player they should keep, one they should cut, and one they should look to trade.

Keep One: Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback

The Dallas Cowboys have three starters due to be free agents this offseason; Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, and Jourdan Lewis. Sure these three aren’t destined for big-money deals this offseason. None of the three had very good seasons in their contract years, but the Cowboys still need to figure out a way to replace or upgrade all of the snaps they’re losing with the three potentially on the move.

One way to provide yourself some insurance as a team is to bring one of them back on a one-year deal with maybe a team option for a second year. The player I’m most inclined to offer that to is Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.

Chido has certainly had his ups and downs during his tenure with the Cowboys, often being picked on by the defense. However, he’s a player with a lot of experience and a lot of experience in a Cover-3, which is what Dan Quinn wants to run.

Injuries limited him to just 450 snaps, which will likely decrease his number on the open market. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him take a one-year prove-it deal with the Cowboys or someone else. Even if the Cowboys draft a Patrick Surtain or Caleb Farley at number 10 in the draft, Awuzie’s versatility gives them options to get him on the field if a rookie cornerback asserts himself into the starting lineup in 2021. Keeping Awuzie in no way takes cornerback off the table in the first three rounds of the drat. Just provides insurance if one of the top corners isn’t available for you to pick.

An affordable price tag and a familiarity with the defense might make him an affordable option to provide depth to a secondary facing a major overhaul.

Cut One: Jaylon Smith, Linebacker

The Dallas Cowboys need to get better, faster, and more athletic at linebacker in 2021. Jaylon Smith, though he’s certainly made some plays for the Cowboys in his three years on the field, isn’t any of those things. He’s a liability in coverage and has had a hard time with misdirection in the run and pass game. His difficulty changing directions leaves him hung out to dry at times and slow to recover.

Now, this isn’t to say he’s a terrible player. He’s not. He’s just not worth the $9.8 million cap hit he’ll receive in 2021. The Cowboys can get out from under his contract by designating him a post-June 1st cut and save $7.2 million with just $2.6 million in dead money on this year’s cap.

It certainly wouldn’t be an easy move to make as the Cowboys have question marks at their other linebacker spot with Leighton Vander Esch’s injury situation. However, the Cowboys have to get better play from the second level of their defense.

It could improve if the Cowboys bring in a bonafide run-stopping defensive tackle in free agency, but knowing what we know about this team’s free-agent spending patterns, that doesn’t seem very likely. If Jaylon Smith can’t run free and attack downhill, he becomes a liability in both the run and pass game.

Trade One: Dorance Armstrong, Defensive End

There aren’t a whole lot of trade candidates on the Dallas Cowboys roster on the defensive side of the football. They’re either young players with promise, players in their prime, or players heading to free agency. So that leaves us with few options to look at, but we’ll trade Defensive End Dorance Armstrong.

Armstrong saw a huge uptick in his snap count in 2020 under Mike Nolan. He didn’t have a sack for the first time in his career, but he did match his previous high in pressures per Pro Football Focus. His 13 “stops” were also a career-high. Pro Football Focus defines a “stop” as a play that constitutes a loss for the defense.

Dorance Armstrong is a nice depth piece that provides solid rotational snaps. However, he’s entering the final year of his rookie deal and hasn’t shown enough to be considered for an extension prior to the end of his contract. It’s certainly possible that the Cowboys could bring him back next offseason as a trusted depth piece, but they could also upgrade their edge 3 or 4 as well.

The Cowboys are bringing back DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory who will likely start at defensive end for the Cowboys in 2021. There’s also a possibility that the Cowboys bring back Aldon Smith on another short-term deal in 2021. As good as the start to his season was, he finished with a whimper as Randy Gregory emerged.

Then there’s 2020 draft pick Bradlee Anae who inexplicably saw very few snaps in a season where the Cowboys should have been finding out about their young talent. Anae has a ton of production at Utah and slid to the later rounds because of his testing, but still has tremendous upside and needs to be on the field.

Armstrong has been a solid piece for the Cowboys and coming off arguably his best season, now might be the time to get something for him (a sixth or seventh round pick) before you let him walk in the 2022 offseason.

The defense has a ton of questions that the Cowboys need to answer heading into the 2021 offseason. There’s certainly a scenario where one or more of these things occur and at the same time, none of them could happen. As they begin to formulate a plan for how to retool their roster for 2021, sometimes the thinking comes from outside of the box.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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  1. I don’t have a problem with any of those but I doubt you would get much for Armstrong but he’s not doing much either

  2. Keep- Antwaun Woods. Has been our most consistent DT last couple of years. Id pick Sean Lee if he wants to play but I think he retires.
    Cut- Jaylon. Overpriced contract for mediocre play.
    Trade – Vander Esch. A solid player WHEN healthy. Id try and get something for him and overhaul my LB core.

  3. I usually like your articles, especially over the rest of the writers at BR, but this one not much.As much as he has struggled I still cant see how we would benefit from releasing him, I believe a whole training camp with a new but famaliar defense and an upgrade at DT should help both L.V. and J.S. and as long as they can stay healthy the defense should get alot better from last year…I am feeding my 11mnth old while I am trying to type this hopefully not to many mistakes ..lol

    • I understand the feeding while typing deal. Just got done putting the 5-month-old back to bed for now the third time this evening.

      I appreciate the positive feedback, even if not for this piece.

      I think defensive tackle improvement will help, but I think the issues we see with Jaylon Smith aren’t simply from 2020. I think the Rams game back in the 2018 playoffs wrote the book on how to attack their linebackers and other teams have taken notice.

  4. Dallas had a decent not dominant defense in 2019 and fell apart in 2020. The huge issue this year was converting to a different D scheme when there was no time to fully implement with players that were not designed to play in it to begin with. Then the D secondary was pretty much ravaged most of the season. How about we just take a deep breath. In my view it starts with the interior line. Get some stout fireplugs in there that can hold their ground and collapse the pocket and I think you will see the entire D play better. They need to replace or resign some corners and find a decent safety and find some young talent to develop and push the vets.

  5. Agree Todd, DT position needs upgrade. Maybe resign Chido. Get a solid FS.

    Breaking news, Stafford traded to Rams for Goff plus 3 draft picks.

  6. I agree on cutting JS, he is such a liability in so many facets of the game, rather its getting washed in the run game snd slow reactions to misdirection plays. I thought it was a reach when they drafted him while he was hurt. There hasn’t been a dominate run stopping ND defensive player in years and I still can’t understand why you would pay him that amount of money when he isn’t as good as Fred Warner with the 49ers. Warner is sideline to sideline and can get off blocks something JS hasn’t been able to do since he came here. If he doesn’t have the run plugging DT’s we don’t possess he is a wasted roster spot. To add to that the Cowboys need to flush the entire LB group.

  7. I’m curious as to why Anthony Brown isn’t mentioned in your article. He should be cut. Every team knows, throw it to his side of the field if you want a guaranteed first down or a pass interference call.

  8. The top priority should be DE or DT !! With a top Defensive Front!! You can put pressure on Quarterback and stop the running lanes!! Top pick needs to be DE or DT !! Than replacement for Sean Lee!! With Offensive Lineman too! If top Offensive Lineman falls to #10 pick need take !! The Cowboys wont be at tenth pick again!!

  9. The Cowboys need to trade as many as possible for draft picks. It is time to start building from the bottom up. Forget about the Super Bowl right now. And if I had one wish it would be to bring back Jimmie Johnson!!!!!

  10. Ruben… you really need to deep dive into the Cowboys’ needs. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are set as DE. DT is another story. Top priority is the CB position.

  11. Don’t keep any one of them.
    Trade or release them and go through the draft and go for the best free agent cornerback available.
    Time to quit going for these nickel and dime players.
    Cowboys need to learn from their mistakes as what they’re doing now isn’t working.
    Take an example from Rams playbook and go big or go home.

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