For over a decade, it seems that the Dallas Cowboys have not had an elite defense. If they did finish among the upper echelons of defensive stats, it was partly due to the offensive production. An example of this was in 2016 when the Cowboys had the league’s best rushing defense. Not to take away from Sean Lee and the presence that he brings, but that statistic was definitely helped by the ability of the offense to win the time of possession battle, and force the opposing teams to play catch up and pass the ball more.
In 2018, the Cowboys have the makings of taking the next step and becoming one of the better defensive units in football. They may not fall in the elite category, but the Cowboys have a unique combination of versatility, depth, and youth that could pay huge dividends in their 2018 campaign.
Dallas improved on defense in 2017 in pressuring the quarterback and that was in large part due to the efforts of DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving. With Lawrence receiving the franchise tag, he will look to have another productive season to be in line for a huge payday. The Cowboys could also, possibly, get Randy Gregory back. The former second-round pick applied for reinstatement two weeks ago. If he returns, the Cowboys could finally have the speed rusher they’ve been missing.
The Cowboys will hope to receive significant contributions from Lawrence, Irving, Crawford, Maliek Collins, Taco Charlton and possibly Gregory if reinstated. Charles Tapper and Kony Ealy are also in the mix. Even with all of those guys, teams can never have enough pass-rushers (you may have heard that before). The Cowboys were not expected to draft one in the 2018 NFL Draft, but they continued their youth movement on the defense by adding Kansas’ Dorance Armstrong.
In his first year at Kansas in 2015, Armstrong was an immediate contributor, showing glimpses of being a serious player for the Jayhawks. In 2016, he broke out and garnered attention from NFL personnel thanks to a 56-tackle, 10-sack, 20-tackle-for-loss campaign.
The hype and buzz surrounding Armstrong simmered down in 2017 when he was asked to play out of position to suit a new coaching scheme and philosophy. As a result, his numbers took a dip. Regardless, that did not scare away the Cowboys from taking Armstrong in the fourth round of the draft. In fact, the Cowboys were tempted to trade up into the third round to get him, but couldn’t find a suitable deal.
At just 20-years-old, there is a lot of potential for Armstrong. Despite being so young, the fact that he was able to produce so consistently at Kansas despite the talent around him is very noteworthy. Kansas has perennially been one of the worst Power 5 football programs in the country.
Armstrong was a player opposing offenses keyed in on each week and he was still able to be a factor. That is quite telling of the player Armstrong is and the headaches he can cause to opposing offensive coaching staffs.
He has the long arms NFL evaluators like. He has excellent change-of-speed speed, which points to his burst. Armstrong’s technique with his hands is quite-refined, he has strong hands that he utilizes to his advantage when tangling with offensive lineman.
On tape, Armstrong gives the Cowboys plenty of reasons for optimism. He sets offensive linemen up well, and his quickness and burst gives him an advantage against offensive tackles. He is a guy who can also cause problems in the backfield when teams are looking to run the football. Dallas prefers defensive lineman who get off the snap well. Armstrong is quick and tenacious off the snap, which is a trait that Rod Marinelli definitely liked.
While the athleticism is there and there has been production in the past, Armstrong will need to add muscle before becoming a steady producer for this front. If he were to play at his weight right now, he would be a liability against the run given his unrefined shedding ability. He will need to work on being able to set the edge in run defense. He won against the run in college particularly because of athleticism, but that will not work consistently in the NFL. His technique is something that needs work, both in the run game and pass rush.
Dallas’ defensive line is deep. They used their first-round pick on Taco Charlton in last year’s draft and he was really not a factor until the end of the year. With offseason additions of Jihad Ward and Kony Ealy as well as the return of Charles Tapper, Armstrong may be low on the totem pole in terms of players the Cowboys want to utilize in their front four to start the year.
Because of the spot they drafted him, the Cowboys are going to find ways for Armstrong to get NFL experience. He could be a solid contributor on special teams for coach Keith O’Quinn.
Like Charlton was in his rookie year, he could be seasoned in throughout his debut season on pass-rushing downs to add more ‘sack-minded’ defensive lineman on the field. It will be up to Armstrong on how fast he progresses to gain playing time on a consistent basis, but his likely role will be an occasional pass rusher as he develops, with his second season being more of a target for regular playing time.