It’s hard not to be concerned with the play at defensive end after a year in which Dallas’ sack leader brought down the passer a whopping 6.5 times. While that’s not an encouraging amount from a player with Demarcus Lawrence’s salary, it’s also tough to be too disappointed with him, considering his overall impact on the Dallas Cowboys defense.
Aldon Smith got off to a strong start in his return to the field, and Randy Gregory returned later in the season and flashed his potential as well. Dorance Armstrong had the most active year of his career, while Everson Griffen had his moments before netting Dallas a sixth-round pick in a trade with Detroit. Tyrone Crawford filled in at multiple positions on the defensive line when healthy, while young players like Bradlee Anae and Ron’Dell Carter saw limited time. Not only was the sack production a significant source of frustration, but so was the scheme.
Doomed by the Scheme
Mike Nolan tried to fit some square pegs in round holes by asking this bunch to occasionally stand up in his odd-man front. Few had experience doing so, and the lack of an offseason only exasperated the situation.
In the end, Nolan and Jim Tomsula lost their jobs, and rumors were that Dallas was seeking someone with a defensive scheme that could highlight Gregory more. Part of what made Dan Quinn the right fit was his preference in a four-man front, which could feature Gregory as the Leo of his scheme.
Still, Quinn plans to mix his fronts which will embrace various skill sets at defensive end. That hopefully allows the Cowboys to get more out of the position in 2021.
Which Cowboys Defensive Ends Are Returning?
Lawrence is returning as the most important player at the position, though he’s only collected 11.5 sacks in the last two years after putting up double-digit totals in each of the prior two. A bounce-back year in that regard would go a long way for this pass defense.
Gregory is scheduled to be back as well, although that status is always on thin ice. Still, the Cowboys are planning for him to play a big role in their defense, so they must be confident in his turnaround.
Armstrong is in the final year of his rookie deal and coming off a career-high 33 tackles in 2020, although he didn’t record a sack. There was a lot of hype surrounding Anae and Carter as rookies going into training camp, and both will be back for their second season.
Plenty of New Faces
A trio of free-agent signees will also factor into the position in 2021. Brent Urban has built his career on being a run stuffer, and will bring that role to the Cowboys defense.
Carlos Watkins is another player that could factor in at end in the base defense, although he will likely get more reps as a nose tackle. Tarell Basham will also bring some experience as an edge rusher and is coming off a year when he recorded a career-high 3.5 sacks.
Which Cowboys Defensive Ends aren’t returning in 2021?
Crawford Calls it a Career
Long-time, Cowboy Tyrone Crawford choose to retire this offseason after spending all nine years of his career in Dallas. While Crawford’s role often changed during his tenure, replacing his vocal leadership on the defense will be tough.
One Year Will Do
The Cowboys have also informed Aldon Smith that they are moving on after he spent 2020 in Dallas following a near five-year hiatus due to suspensions. Early in the year, Smith was easily the Cowboys most impactful defensive player, but his performance fizzled midway through the season.
What Do Cowboys Need at Defensive End?
The new defensive scheme will see plenty of Lawrence and Gregory combining their talents to get to the ball. Still, there will be times where the base alignment will implement a bigger end as a four technique.
Lawrence can play that position against certain personnel groups, but against heavier offensive packages, we are likely to see him rotate with Gregory at the Leo position. Considering the amount of wear and tear it takes playing on the interior against the run, limiting Lawrence in those scenarios will keep him fresh for obvious-passing downs.
In those circumstances, Urban is likely to be in the mix at the four-tech spot. The Cowboys have also been doing their homework on prospects that could fit that role.
However, Dallas could be looking for a traditional edge rusher as well. Lawrence, Gregory, and Basham are going to see plenty of time rushing the passer from the outside, while Anae and Carter both came with expectations of helping in this area.
Still, you can never have enough pass rushers. If someone they like is at the top of their board when they’re on the clock, expect Dallas to make that move.
Cowboys Draft Targets at Defensive End
While this is the first of my Tier-Two Needs for Dallas, I’m not ruling out them spending a top-100 pick here. Still, the value would have to be very high for that to make sense.
Day One Defensive Ends
As many as four edge rushers could hear their names called in the first round, including the Miami duo of Gregory Rousseau and Jaelan Phillips, Michigan’s Kwity Paye, and Penn State’s Jayson Oweh. However, none of them are candidates for the tenth selection, nor would I expect them to move back with acquiring one of them in mind.
Still, day two could provide some intriguing candidates, particularly at the four-tech position. Carlos Basham is a borderline first-round pick, and his skill set is tailor-made for that role.
That could be the very reason he slides into day two because not many teams are looking for that kind of player. Still, as my 30th-ranked prospect, the Cowboys would have to give some strong consideration to taking him if he fell to 44.
Two other players that would be ideal fits for that role are Houston’s Payton Turner and Louisiana Tech’s Milton Williams. The Cowboys were in attendance at both their Pro Days and I would not be surprised if Dallas turned in their card before day two is over.
Iowa’s Chauncey Golston is also a day-three guy that could fill the role. I’m also a big fan of Tulane’s Cameron Sample, who can play multiple positions along the front.
As for the crop of more traditional edge rushers, Washington’s Joe Tryon could be considered at 44. He’s got day-one physical traits but only had one productive year for the Huskies.
On day three, there are some enticing skill sets with the upside that could sway Dallas. Notre Dame’s Ade Ogundeji, Alabama-Birmingham’s Jordan Smith, Northern Iowa’s Elerson Smith, and Florida State’s Joshua Kaindoh are all impressive players. Still, they have some areas to improve to live up to their physical gifts.