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Cowboys defensive free agents 2020: Who stays and who goes?

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Let’s take a look at some defensive free agents for the Cowboys.

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Dallas Cowboys v Detroit Lions Photo by Rob Leiter/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys will have some decisions to make this offseason as several of their players have expiring contracts. Some of the players we’ve grown to love won’t be retained as the team goes through the typical turnover that accompanies each new NFL season. Last week, we took a look at the offensive free agents and made our best guess as to which players would stick around. This week, we’ll examine the guys on the defensive side.

Robert Quinn

The Cowboys got a great deal when they traded away a sixth-round pick to acquire veteran edge rusher Robert Quinn from the Miami Dolphins. He came with a cap hit of $7 million. While the cost was very reasonable for a seasoned pass rusher, many fans were wondering what type of player the Cowboys were getting. Would he flash some of that greatness that saw him get 19 sacks in 2013, or would it be the mediocre production that saw him average six sacks over the last four seasons? As it turned out, it was closer to the former as Quinn recorded 11.5 sacks despite being suspended for the first four games of the season.

Quinn was a force on the edge and it would be great to have him back, but did his great season price him out of Dallas? The Cowboys have some young defensive ends like Dorance Armstrong and Joe Jackson who have potential, but they’re a large step down from Quinn.

This one is going to be tricky. It would be great to have him back, but his asking price may be too high.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Byron Jones

When the Cowboys veteran corner sat out with an ankle injury in Week 17 against the Washington Redskins, it was the first game he missed in his five-year career. Byron Jones has found a nice home at cornerback after spending the first three years bouncing around with most of his snaps being at safety. Since the switch to corner, Jones has established himself as one of the most reliable corners in the league. Play at that position can be erratic from year to year, but Jones joins Stephon Gilmore as the only two CB’s who have graded out in the top 15 (PFF) over the past two seasons. In that span, Jones has allowed just a 50% completion rate, fourth-best in the league.

While Jones does a good job denying his man the ball, he hasn’t been able to come up with many big plays. In his two years starting at corner, he’s yet to have an interception. And then there are times he can be on the wrong end of a big play.

It’s really hard to know what Jones’ services will demand on the open market. There are some reasons teams might overspend, and there are some reasons teams may pause. At the end of the day, Jones is a guy this organization loves and is a great player at a very important position.

Prediction: Stays

Sean Lee

Someone must’ve found the winning formula to keep the veteran linebacker healthy because the 33-year Sean Lee played in all 16 games this year for the first time in his 10-year NFL career. And with their young linebacker star Leighton Vander Esch missing part of the year with a neck injury, his services came in handy.

Lee took a pay cut last season, signing a one-year, $3.5 million deal that cleared an extra $4 million of cap space for the Cowboys. He clearly wants to play for Dallas and understands his new role on the team. With another short term team-friendly deal, don’t be surprised if the team keeps him around a little longer.

Prediction: Stays

Maliek Collins

The 2016 NFL Draft will go down as one of the Cowboys best throughout the years as players like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jaylon Smith were great selections for this organization. But one guy who gets lost in the mix is four-year starter Maliek Collins. While the veteran defensive tackle has battled some injuries throughout his career, he’s only actually missed three games. Last year, he compiled 20 tackles and four sacks.

Collins is not very effective against the run, but his pass rushing ability flies under the radar. Collins has one of the best win rates for defensive tackles despite being double-teamed almost as much as Aaron Donald (according to Next Gen Stats).

If rookie Trysten Hill had shown a little more promise, Collins would be all but out the door. But that didn’t happen, and now it leaves a little more uncertainty at the position going forward. While it would be great to keep Collins on the roster, the Cowboys front office needs to be conscientious about how they use their cap allocations, and Collins is a little more replaceable than some of their other free agents. The open market might offer him a little more financial freedom that what Dallas is willing to pay.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Anthony Brown

Similar to Collins, Anthony Brown is another player from the 2016 draft class that is often forgotten about. A sixth-round pick, Brown has been a great gem for Dallas as he’s logged 10 starts in each of his first three seasons in the league. It would’ve been all four had his year not been cut short due to a season-ending tricep injury.

Brown is a guy that doesn’t get a lot of love from Cowboys fans. Some of that is due to a dreadful sophomore season that saw him get relegated to the bench. And some of that is due to the infatuation many have with Jourdan Lewis. Make no mistake about it though, Brown has played well for the Cowboys, and some team out there will be willing to open up their pocket book for his services.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Jeff Heath

Many fans are relieved at the notion that Jeff Heath’s contract is expiring as the veteran safety has limitations as to what he can do on defense. The veteran has played seven seasons with the team with the last three as a starter. He’s been a solid player, but he’s never been able to manifest into a player fans feel good about in the secondary.

The Cowboys have some work to do at the safety position as Xavier Woods will be entering the last year of his rookie deal. One might think Dallas would use one of their earlier draft resources to address the position, but we’ve been fooled by that before. Regardless what they do, don’t be surprised if they bring Heath back on low-cost deal to fill the void at the position.

Prediction: Stays

Antwaun Woods

Any time you can provide solid contribution at the nose tackle position for the low cost of $525,000, you’re going to be a fan favorite. After being waived by Tennessee in 2018, the Cowboys gave him a shot and he’s seized the day.

It hasn’t been a great season off the field for the 300-pounder as he and rookie Trysten Hill were sent home after being late to a meeting in October. Then, he sprained his MCL that caused him to miss a couple games. And if that wasn’t enough, he was then pulled over for speeding and arrested for marijuana possession in December.

Woods came back and had a great game against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 15 where he helped the defense shut down Todd Gurley. While his long-term status might be a little hazy, his immediate future should not. Woods is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning the Cowboys can retain his services for another year at an affordable rate.

Prediction: Stays

Michael Bennett

The Cowboys front office did a great job acquiring Michael Bennett from the New England Patriots at the trade deadline. The savvy lineman helped bolster the defense, making 27 tackles and four sacks in nine games with the Cowboys.

At 34-years-old, Bennett won’t cost an arm and a leg to re-sign, assuming he continues to play. He can be a little bit of a risk, and his propensity to regularly jump offsides isn’t ideal, but he’s still a good player to have along the defensive line.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Joe Thomas

The Cowboys signed Joe Thomas on a two-year, $3.6 million deal in 2018 to give the team some extra depth. With solid coverage ability and strong special teams contribution, Thomas was a nice get for the team. Even with the team losing Vander Esch for seven games, Thomas just wasn’t utilized very much on defense. His 246 snaps (24%) ranked 19th on the defense. He did play 227 snaps on special teams which was fourth most on the team.

A reunion with his Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy might paint a picture of a possible re-signing with Dallas on a low-cost deal; however, the team has some other options available, including Luke Gifford who is on a super-cheap rookie deal. Unless free agency proves to be dry for Thomas, he should end up finding a new home.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Christian Covington

Signing veteran defensive tackle Christian Covington to a one-year, $2.5 million deal was a smart move for the Cowboys as it helped strengthen the depth in the interior of their defensive line. With Woods missing action this year, Covington was able to fill in and started six games for Dallas in 2019.

Having Covington on their roster gives the team another player who can play the nose position, but with Woods expected back - how much would they value his services? The team lucked out getting him cheap last year, but he should be slightly out of their pay range this offseason.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Kerry Hyder

If you think Covington was a good-value signing, then free agent Kerry Hyder was bargain. His one-year deal only cost the team $1 million in cap space. While Hyder didn’t start for the Cowboys, he played in all 16 games and recorded 439 snaps. He was able to play both inside and outside, which helped replenish a little position flex left by the absence of Tyrone Crawford.

Hyder had a strong preseason last year, which gave an impression he could carve out a spot on the team, but the additions of Quinn and Bennett made it difficult to grab any significant playing time. Those players might not be around in 2020, making room for a possible return for Hyder.

Prediction: Stays

Darian Thompson

In training camp last year, fans had their favorites as to which guy would serve as the Cowboys no. 3 safety behind Woods and Heath. Some liked veteran George Iloka, and some liked the rookie Donovan Wilson. As it turned out, former third-round pick Darian Thompson (Giants, 2016) ended up being the first safety off the bench. He played in 15 games last year, including four starts in Heath’s absence.

The team needs some help at safety, and that may very well be addressed through the draft, but re-upping on Thompson could provide the team some extra depth at a low cost.

Prediction: Stays

Kavon Frazier

There is nothing more of a downer than suffering a season-ending injury during a contract year, but that is exactly what happened with Kavon Frazier. After a pectoral injury landed him on injured reserve, Frazier’s time in Dallas appeared to be over. There was a time back in 2017 where his special teams plays turned a few heads, but he’s since regressed and doesn’t have much of a role on the team.

A new special teams coach could always save him, but Frazier looks like just another guy, and with Donovan Wilson waiting in the wings for super cheap, it just doesn’t make sense to keep him around.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Justin March

The team brought Justin March back on a one-year, $720,000 deal last offseason. He didn’t see much time on defense (44 total snaps), but he logged the third-most special teams reps on the team. The team could very well retain his services if the cost is cheap, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a replacement.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Daniel Ross

It’s easy to forget about undrafted free agent Daniel Ross, but he’s a guy that the team has always loved. A shoulder injury ended his season before it began as he was placed on injured reserve back in August. And he did himself no favors when he was arrested for marijuana possession and unlawfully carrying a weapon in November. But Ross is a restricted free agent, so don’t be surprised if he ends up sticking around.

Prediction: Stays

C.J. Goodwin

Another forgotten player on this team is special teams’ ace C.J. Goodwin. He doesn’t play much on defense as he only saw 21 snaps; however, no Cowboys player logged more playing time on special teams.

With John Fassel joining the Cowboys coaching staff, a player like Goodwin might be a little more coveted than some might think as the team looks to improve a unit that struggled immensely last season.

Prediction: Stays

Malcolm Smith

When the Cowboys lost Joe Thomas for last two games of the season, they went out and brought in former Super Bowl XLVIII MVP Malcolm Smith to add to their linebacker depth. Smith is a well-traveled veteran who has played for five different teams, but he proved serviceable in his two games with the Cowboys. He played in over 60% of the defensive snaps during those games and even forced a fumble in the season-finale against the Washington Redskins.

Smith is an interesting case as his experience provides a nice plug-in-play option should the team have to rely on their linebacker depth once again.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere

Ray-Ray Armstrong

If I had a nickel for every time I saw Ray-Ray Armstrong make a play, I’d be dead broke because absolutely nothing comes to mind. Signed in Week 17, the veteran linebacker only played one game with the Cowboys. He played 21 snaps, all on special teams.

Armstrong was just another guy the team needed to give them some depth late last season, and you’d have to venture the team would be able to find better options with a full training camp ahead of them.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere