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Top Free Agent Defensive End Options for the Dallas Cowboys

John Williams

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Top Free Agent Defensive End Options for the Dallas Cowboys

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.

Top Free Agent Defensive End Options for the Dallas Cowboys 1

Jan 12, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) attempts to run the ball while Los Angeles Rams linebacker Dante Fowler (56) moves to defend during the first half in a NFC Divisional playoff football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Buy-Low Options

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.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

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.



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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Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Wide Receiver

Jess Haynie

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Can WR Michael Gallup Eclipse 1,000 Receiving Yards as a Rookie?

The biggest story of the Cowboys' 2018 season was the mid-season arrival of Amari Cooper and the way it turned Dallas into a playoff-bound contender. Wide receiver remains a key component of the team this year, and today we'll look at how the talent stacks up with only a week to go before 2019 training camp.

Cooper is back and all signs point to him getting a long-term contract in the near future. He is the undisputed number-one receiver and has reestablished himself as one of the better one in the NFL after a brief downtime in Oakland.

Last year's third-round pick, Michael Gallup, rose to the number-two spot throughout last year and eventually was beating Cole Beasley in targets by the playoffs. There are reasonably high hopes for his continued development; Dallas could boast one of the best WR tandems in football by the end of 2019.

With the aforementioned Beasley bolting for Buffalo in free agency, the Cowboys made one of their splashier signings in veteran Randall Cobb to replace him. Cobb has struggled with injuries his last few years in Green Bay, but he's still just 28 and has produced at a higher level than Cole ever did.

If Randall's healthy, he brings more security to the position as a player who can step into a starting role if needed. But ideally, if Cooper and Gallup hold their spots down, Cobb will be a major threat as the slot receiver. He has real potential to upgrade that spot from Beasley, which isn't a knock on Cole but the reality of Cobb's talent.

Here is our projected depth chart for the Cowboys' WR position in 2019. We're going to treat the top three receivers as starters, since WR3 plays the majority of offensive snaps in the modern NFL.

  1. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb
  2. Allen Hurns, Noah Brown, Tavon Austin
  3. Cedrick Wilson, Devin Smith, Lance Lenoir
  4. Jalen Guyton, Reggie Davis, Jon'Vea Johnson

As with most of the Dallas roster in 2019, we have a firm grip on who the starters are. But there's a lot of competition for the bottom of the depth chart, and WR exemplifies that as well as any position on the team.

Could WR Noah Brown Help the Cowboys at Tight End?

Dallas Cowboys WR Noah Brown

One guy who feels like a lock is Noah Brown, the 2017 7th-round pick who has proven himself a valuable special teams player with the potential for more. Brown's physical receiving style has reminded us of a young Dez Bryant in his limited playing time, and he's even shown enough power to be deployed as a small tight end in some situations.

On paper, veterans Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin would round out the WR depth chart. Hurns has the most experience as a former starting WR and offers security if Cooper or Gallup should go down. Austin has versatility, rare speed, and the special teams work as a return specialist to justify his presence.

But Hurns also has a $6.25 million cap hit that Dallas can shed $5 million of if he's released. And Tavon's value may take a big hit if rookie RB Tony Pollard steals his reps as the offensive gadget player and in the return game.

These veterans will have to fight for their spots. A prospect like Cedrick Wilson, who the team was high on in 2018 as a rookie but lost to injury, could easily challenge them. There's also Lance Lenoir, who has return ability and has been with the team for two seasons.

Undrafted rookie Jon'Vea Johnson was one of the buzz names coming out of mini-camps and OTAs. If the praise continues now, Johnson could easily push his way onto the bottom of the roster. He appears to be a favorite of Cowboys WR Coach Sanjay Lal.

One more guy to watch is Devin Smith. He was a 2nd-round pick of the Jets in 2015 but has struggled with knee injuries the last few years. Dallas signed him last January as a reclamation project, and clearly there's something there that once made him a Day 2 pick.

This is a loaded group at WR in 2019, which is great for the Cowboys and unfortunate for those who deserve a roster spot but won't find one. Will the veterans like Hurns and Austin fight off the young guys, or will someone like Johnson be the next undrafted rookie to succeed in Dallas?

~ ~ ~

OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS



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Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?

John Williams

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Safe to Say, Ezekiel Elliott Not an Offensive Line Product

There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.

On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.

It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.

In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.

In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.

In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.

No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.

Per Game Table
Rushing Receiving
Rk Player From To Att Yds TD Rec Yds TD
1 Saquon Barkley 2018 2018 16.3 81.7 0.7 5.7 45.1 0.3
2 Le'Veon Bell 2015 2017 21.1 94.4 0.6 5.6 42.6 0.1
3 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 2018 21.7 101.2 0.7 3.4 30.0 0.2
4 Todd Gurley 2015 2018 18.0 78.4 0.8 3.2 32.5 0.2
5 Alvin Kamara 2017 2018 10.1 52.0 0.7 5.2 49.5 0.3
6 Christian McCaffrey 2017 2018 10.5 47.9 0.3 5.8 47.4 0.3
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2019.

Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.

Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.

Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.

No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.

Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.

If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.

One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.

In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.

With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.

The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.



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Is DeMarco Murray a Factor in Ezekiel Elliott’s Rumored Holdout?

Jess Haynie

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DeMarco Murray Expects Ezekiel Elliott to Rewrite Cowboys' Record Book

There's been a lot of talk this week about a rumored training camp holdout by Ezekiel Elliott, with the Dallas Cowboys' star running back seeking a renegotiated contract. If Zeke does actually hold out, I can't help but wonder if the Cowboys' handling of DeMarco Murray a few years ago isn't a factor in his decision.

Quick history lesson; in 2014, Murray ran for the most yards (1,845) in Cowboys history for a single season. But that was also the final year of his rookie contract, and Dallas chose to let DeMarco leave in free agency when the two sides were unable to agree on new contract.

Murray had just turned 26 when he hit free agency, and his four years Dallas had not had consistent production or availability. 2014 was the first time he was able to play at such a high level, or played a full 16-game season.

As you might remember, Murray left and joined the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly. As with most things during Kelly's time in Philly, it proved to be a disaster. DeMarco was released after one year and then had a couple of seasons in Tennessee before retiring.

The way it all turned out seemed to validate the Cowboys' decision. Perhaps Murray's big year in 2014 was more about adding Zack Martin and Ron Leary to the offensive line than DeMarco himself. He certainly didn't look like the same player at any other point in his career.

But Ezekiel Elliott and his agent may not be too worried about all of those nuances. They may be looking at the simple fact that the Cowboys allowed one of the most productive RBs in football in 2014 to just walk away in free agency.

Zeke may be worried that Dallas will allow him to do the same.

Ezekiel Elliott Already Has Second Rushing Title Locked Down

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

There are some important differences to note between Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray. For one, Elliott's been elite every season. He's led the NFL in rushing yards-per-game the last three years.

Zeke has also been faultlessly durable, missing no games due to injury. Murray had already missed 11 games his first three years before we even got to 2014.

However, there are some similarities that can't be ignored. While Elliott's never missed time for health reasons, he missed six games in 2017 due to a suspension for a domestic violence accusation. He also came dangerously close to missing more time this year due to an incident with a security guard in Las Vegas during the offseason.

Availability is availability, whether it's for behavioral issues or injuries. The team assumes the same risk either way.

Also, Elliott has had the same benefit of running behind this great Cowboys offensive line for the last three years. It hasn't been quite as good as 2014, with Ron Leary never being completely replaced, but he hasn't lacked for superior blocking compared to most NFL running backs.

Another factor; Zeke is due to turn 24 next week. That means he'd be 25 next year when playing on the 5th-year option, and about to turn 26 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021.

DeMarco Murray was also 26 when he hit free agency in 2015. And he'd only played four NFL seasons, while Zeke would have just finished his fifth.

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys CTK: DeMarco Murray Dominates #29 2

Former Dallas Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

I'm not saying that Murray and Elliott are the same player. Zeke has proven himself better over a long period of time and with less talent in front and around him. He's carried the offense without Tony Romo's passing or Jason Witten and Dez Bryant still in their prime, like DeMarco had in 2014.

But in 2015, with the prospect of competing for a Super Bowl well in reach, the Cowboys decided to gamble on the shaky Darren McFadden rather than pay DeMarco Murray market value. They trusted their system and offensive line to produce a successful running back.

Zeke may be worried that Dallas is preparing to take that same approach with him. They can keep playing him at a discount this year and in 2020, when even his raise to $9 million is still a bargain compared to guys like Todd Gurley and Le'Veon Bell.

In 2021 the Cowboys could then hit Elliott with the franchise tag. He'd make a ton that year, but without any of the long-term security that other elite RBs are currently enjoying.

In that scenario, Zeke would now be turning 27 the next time free agency rolled around. And the window for getting a multi-year contract may have passed.

That's three more seasons for a major injury to finally find him. If nothing else, it's about 45-50 more games of NFL mileage that could scare other teams off.

Again, this notion of Ezekiel Elliott holding out is just a rumor right now. It may have been floated just to get some easy clicks at Pro Football Talk, which is hardly a new strategy for them.

But in all fairness, you can see why Zeke might be considering it. There's a fair reason to question the Cowboys long-term loyalty, and it goes back to how they handled their last star running back.



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