In part one of this 10-part series, we set the ground rules by discussing the Cowboys’ team-building philosophy. In parts two, three, and four, we looked at where the Cowboys are strong, okay, and weak. In part five, we showed how the Cowboys can create cap space to sign in-house and outside free agents. In part six, we divided the Cowboys’ in-house free agents into three piles, likely to keep, possible keepers, and unlikely to keep. In part seven, we looked at the external free agent options on offense. In part eight(a), we talked about outside free agents for the secondary. This article will discuss the defensive line.
What holes does Dallas need to fill with free agents on defense?
Before looking at the free agents available, we need to recall two things. First, let’s revisit the ground rules by which the Cowboys operate. In the first article in this series, we talked about five elements of the Cowboy’s team philosophy. The last three are relevant here.
3. Plug holes through free agency, but don’t break the bank.
4. Go into the draft with holes filled, so you can take the best player available.
5. Stay young. Don’t re-sign any player over 30.
The most important of these is #4 - to use free agency to fill holes so the team can draft the best player available when their turn comes. OCC’s article on Will McClay reaffirms this point.
That leads us to the second point - the fourth article in this series where we identified the Cowboys’ holes. On defense, the Cowboys have two big holes - cornerback and safety. They also need to upgrade the pass rush, but with seven linemen under contract, they could survive by focusing on the draft. As long as Jaylon Smith returns, they are in the best shape at linebacker.
Dallas has plenty of internal options to fill these slots. The question is whether they can A) do better, and/or B) find someone as good on a more affordable deal.
Defensive End (including Outside Linebackers)
The Cowboys already have four or five defensive ends - DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Tyrone Crawford, and Charles Tapper. David Irving can also play DE, and may be at his best there, as he was at the end of the Tampa Bay game last year. If they add another in free agency, who moves inside? Tyrone Crawford? He has health problems as it is, and says playing outside keeps him from getting beaten up so much. Mayowa is too light to play inside, Lawrence should be our best DE, and Charles Tapper was used as a 3-4 DE in college, which negated some of his speed. Despite Jerry Jones talking about a “war daddy” it’s not clear whether Dallas will sign any new edge rusher.
This is especially true if Dallas decides to draft a defensive end with their first round pick, which seems to be where most mocks send them. Drafting a defensive end makes sense because:
- DeMarcus Lawrence is on the last year of his contract, and his health and suspension issues, and lack of production in 2016 raise questions as to whether Dallas will seek to extend him beyond this season.
- Tyrone Crawford has a contract that will keep Dallas from cutting him soon, but he doesn’t seem to be the long-term answer.
- Randy Gregory can’t be counted on to ever play again.
- Charles Tapper was sidelined by back issues last year and is largely unknown.
With uncertainty down the road, Dallas needs to keep adding linemen in search of ones who can stick. This is best done through the draft.
So, while Dallas may have a potentially crowded situation for 2017, they might suddenly have the kind of holes they have in the secondary if they don’t keep filling. Dallas has also carried 10 defensive linemen at times, which could allow them to “redshirt” a rookie defensive linemen who isn’t quite ready in his first year.
With that in mind, let’s look at who might be available at defensive end.
|DEFENSIVE END||AGE||TEAM||2016 AAV||MARKET VALUE|
|Calais Campbell||30||ARI||$11,000,000||Market Value|
|Jason Pierre-Paul||28||NYG||$10,000,000||Market Value|
|Jabaal Sheard||27||NE||$5,500,000||Market Value|
|Chris Baker||29||WAS||$3,000,000||Market Value|
|Charles Johnson||30||CAR||$3,000,000||Market Value|
|Andre Branch||27||MIA||$2,750,000||Market Value|
|Stephen Paea||28||CLE||$1,900,000||Market Value|
|Mario Addison||29||CAR||$1,280,000||Market Value|
|William Gholston||25||TB||$640,136||Market Value|
|Devin Taylor||27||DET||$615,146||Market Value|
As before, the most expensive guys on this list are just not realistic targets for the Cowboys. This pretty much rules out Calais Campbell ($8.3M plus 30 years old), and Jason Pierre-Paul who was just franchise tagged by the Giants ($14.6M, with mangled hand). These are the others that Spotrac has estimated market value for.
Jabaal Sheard, 27, $8.8 million, 580 snaps, PFF 79.6.
Chris Baker, 29, $7.3 million, 783 snaps, PFF 82.2 (rated as interior DL).
Charles Johnson, 30, $5.9 million, 541 snaps, PFF 81.4.
Andre Branch, 27, $7.2 million, 774 snaps, PFF 56.4.
Mario Addison , 29, $7.1 million, 433 snaps, PFF 83.6. (Re-signed w/ Carolina)
William Gholston, 25, $5.8 million, 585 snaps, PFF 45.1.
Devin Taylor, 27, $7 million, 665 snaps, PFF 39.1.
Of these, Sheard looks too expensive while Johnson is over 30. Baker might make more sense inside, but he’s really a 3-4 DE.
If you throw in the outside linebackers who might switch to defensive end, here’s that list.
|OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS||AGE||TEAM||2016 AAV||MARKET VALUE|
|DeMarcus Ware||34||DEN||$10,000,000||Market Value|
|Nick Perry||26||GB||$5,050,000||Market Value|
|Melvin Ingram||27||LAC||$2,099,559||Market Value|
|Chandler Jones||26||ARI||$2,043,138||Market Value|
|Lorenzo Alexander||33||BUF||$885,000||Market Value|
DeMarcus Ware is estimated at $5.9M. He has already been debated on BTB more than once. Despite his age, he could be an option, depending on price. At this price, he looks a bit too expensive. But at $5M or less, he might be a good choice if he came on a one- or two-year deal with no carryover cost if he retired after next season. The reason to consider him is that he would bring what Randy Gregory was drafted to bring — speed off the edge. That’s one thing lacking in Dallas’s defense. As others have mentioned, he would also be a good mentor and teacher for DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, David Irving, and the other linemen.
Melvin Ingram ($17.2 M) and Chandler Jones ($16.2M) are too expensive and both have received the franchise tag. Not only is it a money issue, it’s a snaps issue. Olivier Vernon, for example, the high priced free agent the Giants signed last year, played 1,040 defensive snaps last year, the most in the NFL. Tyrone Crawford led Dallas defensive ends with 593 snaps, for 59th in the NFL. In Rod Marinelli’s rotation, it’s even more challenging to pay top dollar.
Nick Perry, 26, $8.5M, 606 snaps. He’s the other most intriguing candidate besides Ware. OCC had an article on him recently. At 6-3, 265, he’s got the size to play defensive end, and he’s the perfect age. But will the Packers let him go?
If the Cowboys added Ware, he would likely play no more than 320-400 snaps, or 20-25 per game if he stayed healthy the whole season. He would largely serve as a stop gap until Randy Gregory returned, or if Gregory never returns, until Dallas could draft another edge rusher with speed.
If Perry was the move, the Cowboys would be looking for him to settle in for four-five years and perhaps take the role they hoped DeMarcus Lawrence would fill.
Dallas is thinner at defensive tackle, especially if Tyrone Crawford is left outside next year. Terrell McClain could be brought back, but was injured two of his three years here. Let’s see what’s available on the market.
|DEFENSIVE TACKLE||AGE||TEAM||2016 AAV||MARKET VALUE|
|Dontari Poe||26||KC||$2,830,002||Market Value|
|Sylvester Williams||28||DEN||$1,895,438||Market Value|
|Kawann Short||28||CAR||$1,157,584||Market Value|
|Brandon Williams||27||BAL||$668,750||Market Value|
Kawaan Short ($17.4M), Dontari Poe ($12.1M), and Brandon Williams ($12.4M) are too expensive and Short got the franchise tag.
Sylvester Williams ($4.5M) would be affordable, but is Dallas likely to spend that kind of money at defensive tackle? Unlikely after the Cedric Thornton experiment didn’t go so well in year one.
The more likely move, if Dallas is going to sign anyone for the inside, would be to bring back Terrell McClain or Jack Crawford on cheap contracts. But this is unlikely to be a high priority.
Perhaps the most likely scenario is for Dallas to look to add inside in the draft, like they did with Maliek Collins. This will keep them young, and allow them to keep seeking difference makers without having to spend a lot of money to do so.
Next - Part 9: Drafting on Offense