It’s easy to identify the secondary as the unit the Dallas Cowboys are most desperate to improve, thanks to a mediocre 2020 campaign and a good number of players hitting NFL Free Agency. For that reason, I kicked off this series by identifying players at both cornerback and safety.
Still, Cowboys fans need no reminder that this run defense was one of the worst in football. That result was a direct correlation to the play of our defensive tackles.
Last offseason, the Cowboys front office did a poor job of adding the kind of defensive line free agents that fit Mike Nolan’s scheme. While Dan Quinn’s defense won’t be the exact same, Dallas will still be looking for two-gap players to fit on the strong side of this front.
Not only are the Cowboys desperate to find a nose tackle (one-tech), but they also need to find a similar player that can line up as an interior-shaded end (four/five tech) against more traditional run sets.
In this edition, we will look at defensive line free agents with an affordable price tag that could fill one, if not both, of these positions.
Cowboys Defensive Line Free Agent Targets
Kawann Short’s resume would point to the likelihood that he’d be out of the Cowboys free agency price range. There was a three-year stretch where he was one of the top defensive tackles in the league, collecting 24.5 sacks and 35 tackles for loss. Still, the injury bug has hit hard in the last several years, and Short could be looking for a one-year deal to prove he can stay healthy and be productive through the life of one last contract. That’s what opens the door for Dallas. At 6-foot-3, 315 pounds with nearly 35-inch arms, Short is exactly what Dallas is looking for in a two-gap nose tackle.
D.J. Jones is not what many would consider a great fit in a two-gap scheme, at only six-feet tall. While Dan Quinn’s defense will feature a one-gap penetrator on the weakside as a three-tech, the two strong side players will need to reset the line of scrimmage with force to command double-teams. Still, Jones weighs in at 320 pounds with nearly 33-inch arms and big hands. That should hold up at nose. While many have garnered headlines over the last several years on the 49ers’ defensive line, Jones has been an underrated presence in the bunch. To see his true value, look at what the San Francisco linebackers have done behind him over the past several years.
Austin Johnson is a more versatile player that could play both the one and the four/five-tech positions. While I wouldn’t pencil him in as an immediate starter, he could be a valuable option to rotate in at both spots. The stats won’t wow Cowboys fans, but we are talking about a cheap, veteran option that can give you valuable reps at two positions in the base defense. At 6-4, 315 pounds with nearly 33-inch arms, Johnson fits the mold. Dallas also did quite a bit of homework on him in 2016 coming out of Penn State.
Chris Wormley is similar to Johnson in his versatility. He played more of a nose position in Baltimore early on, before moving out as a five-tech, where Wormley also played in Pittsburgh. At 6-foot-5 and just over 300 pounds, Wormley is likely to be a better fit rotating with Demarcus Lawrence in the base as the four/five-tech. Lawrence can handle that role against three-receiver sets, but against heavier run-formations, he will likely rotate with Randy Gregory at the Leo position. Wormley has 34-inch arms and a reputation for being a stout run defender. Also, like Johnson, he’s not likely to cost a ton as a depth option.
I am hesitant with this one because Dallas was burned a year ago by Dontari Poe, who couldn’t keep his weight down. Still, if Danny Shelton is focused and can keep his weight under 340, he could be this team’s starting nose. That is the player we saw early on in Cleveland, when Shelton had 59 tackles in 2016. That was the player we saw in 2019 for New England when he had 61 stops and three sacks. When his weight is under control, he’s a much more active player. It’s a risk, but one that could pan out if he is committed.