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.