In light of the recent news of the indefinite suspension of Dallas Cowboys Defensive End Randy Gregory, the Cowboys are now sitting with another need along their defense to go with safety and defensive tackle. While we are talking about the “what’s next” part of the Randy Gregory suspension, we still feel for the player and wish him the best and hope he’s able to make it back.
At this point in Gregory’s career, any snaps or production can’t be counted on. So, as we approach the start of free agency on March 13th and the NFL Draft at the end of April, we have to look forward into the roster building aspect of the offseason with defensive end in mind.
There are some really good edge rushers in this years crop of free agents and the Dallas Cowboys should be able to bring in some reinforcements. There are a few players that are going to be able to demand some big time money this offseason and there are some interesting buy-low options as well for the Cowboys.
As I perused the market for free agent edge rushers, I kept in mind that this team doesn’t like to pay age. Therefore, I kept my search to players who are going to be 25 or 26 and looking at their second contract in the NFL. These players would next hit free agency at age 30 or 31. These type of players are the norm for the Dallas Cowboys.
High-Priced Edge Rushers
These high-priced guys are unlikely based on what we know about the Dallas Cowboys free agency spending habits over the last several years, but we’re going to talk about them anyway, because you never know what might happen with Jerry Jones.
Frank Clark, Seattle Seahawks
If you watched the two games the Dallas Cowboys played against the Seattle Seahawks in 2018, you noticed Frank Clark. In fact, for several years now, Clark has given the Dallas Cowboys fits as an edge rusher.
It’s not often you see Tyron Smith get beat cleanly, but that was what Frank Clark was able to do a a couple of occasions to the Dallas Cowboys All-Pro left tackle.
Clark finished the 2018 season with 13 sacks, which was tied for seventh among edge rushers with names like Bradley Chubb, Khalil Mack, and TJ Watt, per Pro Football Focus. Clark’s 64 total pressures were tied for 10th in the NFL.
Now, Clark could be a franchise tag candidate from the Seattle Seahawks, but if he’s able to get to free agency, he’d be a highly sought after player. Spotrac.com projects his contract could be worth about $15.7 million per year over the next five years. I think it’s more likely that he approaches $20 million a year with his production.
Over the last three seasons he’s averaged 10.67 sacks per season with a high of 13 and a low of nine in that span. Remember when Olivier Vernon signed his record-breaking deal for a 4-3 defensive end, he had only one season with eight or more sacks. Clark has three.
It would mean allocating big money to the pass rush, but in a passing league, that is one of the more important areas to allocate big chunks of your cap too. He isn’t the player in the running game that DeMarcus Lawrence is, but he’s a force rushing the passer and would immediately improve your team at right defensive end.
Trey Flowers, New England Patriots
If there was a player that was as good in the run and pass game as DeMarcus Lawrence was in 2018, it was New England Patriots Defensive End Trey Flowers. Pro Football Focus graded him as their third best edge player.
While he only had 7.5 sacks for the Patriots, he’s recorded more than 6.5 sacks in each of his last three seasons. He was 10th in total pressures in 2018 and ninth in Pro Football Focus’ “stops.” They consider a stop as a play that is a loss for the defense.
Flowers, like Clark, could be a franchise tag option, but it doesn’t seem like the “Patriot Way” to spend big money on high-priced free agents that aren’t their quarterback or tight end. Flowers could just as easily be out the door and on the market for the Dallas Cowboys to consider when free agency opens.
Spotrac.com has Flowers projected at $17.3 million per year in a new contract and that seems about right. He doesn’t have the career pass rush production of Frank Clark, but he’s a complete defensive end in the mold of Lawrence.
Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
Coming off of back-to-back nine sack seasons, Jadeveon Clowney of the Houston Texans could be another highly sought after free agent option this March. Like the two guys mentioned before, he’s also a likely franchise tag option for the Texans.
With the Texans having more than $77 million in cap space for 2019, they’d have little difficulty getting under the projected franchise tag number.
Clowney, like DeMarcus Lawrence, and Trey Flowers, is a complete edge player who can rush the passer and play the run with equally great effectiveness. He was 18th in total pressures according to Pro Football Focus and tied for 22nd in sacks. He recorded 38 stops in 2018, which ranked seventh in the NFL, just six behind Lawrence who finished fourth in the league.
Having just turned 26, Clowney is entering his prime and should have several really good seasons ahead of him. He would slot in as the starting right defensive end immediately. Spotrac.com is projecting a contract for Clowney to start at $16.6 million a year. The former first round pick is in for a pay-day, and if the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to pursue him, they should do so.
Dante Fowler Jr., Los Angeles Rams
This player is a curious case. Dante Fowler Jr. was once the third overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a player that was part of their defensive corp.
After a four sack rookie campaign, he took the next step and doubled his production in year two. Fowler was traded to the Los Angeles Rams in the middle of the 2018 season after recording just two sacks in seven games. In eight regular season games and three playoff games with the Rams he only recorded 3.5 sacks.
Fowler is still a very young player in the NFL. He won’t turn 25 until August of this year. His size projects as a weak side defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, someone who could come in and play pass rushing downs.
In the 11 games Fowler played with the Rams, including the playoffs, he led ll edge rushers with 30 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Only Aaron Donald had more total pressures than Fowler in that same time frame.
Shane Ray, Denver Broncos
Shane Ray, the first round pick of the Denver Broncos is coming off the worst statistical season of his career after he posted just one sack and 10 pressure over 11 games. He’s two years removed from an eight sack season in 2016, but hasn’t been able to find the pass rush mojo since.
In 2018, the Denver Broncos drafted Bradley Chubb, inserted him into the lineup and never looked back. Ray will be cheap on the free agent market, but still has some upside as a rusher if given the opportunity.
Aaron Lynch, Chicago Bears
Aaron Lynch became a bit of a forgotten man for the Chicago Bears after they made the deal to acquire Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders just before the season started. Prior to signing with the Bears, Lynch flamed out with the San Francisco 49ers after posting six sack seasons in each of his first two years.
He’s about to turn 26 this year and in a reserve role for the Bears had his highest sack total since his second year in the league.
He’s not an exciting name for the Cowboys, but he does have a bit of a track record and could be solid depth along the defensive line. At 6-6, 270, he has the size to play both sides of the defensive line and be a solid run player.
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The Dallas Cowboys look to be just a few players away from being serious Super Bowl contenders in 2019. While they need to figure out safety and defensive tackle, figuring out what they’re going to do at defensive end jumps to the top of the list. They can get functional snaps out of Tyrone Crawford and Taco Charlton, but they’d be better served at trying to bring in someone with more of a history as a pass rusher.