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Two Cowboys defenders who could benefit the most from Mike Nolan’s new defense

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These two defensive ends could see big improvements under their new defensive coordinator.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Cowboys just finished putting together their coaching staff under Mike McCarthy, and now they have to turn their attention towards working out deals for some of their high profile players with expiring contracts. Naturally, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper are at the top of the list, but Dallas also sees their reigning sack leader, Robert Quinn, ready for a new deal.

Quinn was acquired for a mere sixth-round pick and Dallas only had to pay him a total of $10 million in 2019 after performance-based incentives kicked in, yet his 11.5 sacks not only led the team but were eighth most in the league; it was also Quinn’s first time hitting double digit sacks in a season since 2014. Naturally, it’d be great to bring Quinn back for another year and it’s being reported that Quinn is hopeful to stay, but he also hasn’t made up his mind yet.

With the Cowboys already earmarking some serious cash for other players, and with some work to do in free agency beyond that, it’s possible that Quinn could play elsewhere in 2020. That would create an opening for someone else to earn a prominent role opposite DeMarcus Lawrence on the defensive line, and with Mike Nolan bringing a multiple 4-3 to town, two specific players already on the roster could benefit the most: Dorance Armstrong and Jalen Jelks.

Dorance Armstrong

Dorance Armstrong is entering his third year on the Cowboys since being drafted with the 116th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. He hasn’t played much either year, never seeing more than 27% of the defensive snaps either season. But that has more to do with the talent ahead of him, as Randy Gregory got most of the playing time in 2018 while Quinn did in 2019.

Yet, Armstrong did show improvement in the little action he got this past season. Armstrong had 11 less snaps than his rookie year, yet he posted three more solo tackles, 1.5 more sacks, an additional quarterback knockdown, and forced a fumble; Armstrong also registered one more pressure. All of this was in spite of an overall reduction in snaps, which validates what some considered as noticeable improvements in his play.

Armstrong also possesses the versatility to become more of an asset in Nolan’s defense than in Rod Marinelli’s. As noted in an earlier film breakdown from one of Nolan’s earlier defenses, it’s possible that he’ll occasionally have his defensive ends standing up despite still functioning as a defensive end. Having played through several different scheme changes at Kansas, Armstrong is equipped for this.

In looking back at the scouting notes on Armstrong from NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, one listed strength says that he “Has rush experience standing and with hand in the ground.” Additionally, Zierlein offered this as a summary:

Armstrong is an intriguing prospect with the build and fluid athleticism of a shooting guard. Armstrong’s drop in production can be attributed to a change in scheme that asked him to play run first and pass second. His game revolves around athletic ability over technique, but his poor forty times at both the Combine and his pro day could cause concerns. Armstrong has the tools and upside to become an eventual starter at outside linebacker in a 3-4.

Armstrong has added a bit to his frame since being drafted to the Cowboys, so that projection as a starter in a 3-4 outside linebacker role probably doesn’t hold up as well, but it speaks to Armstrong’s overall athleticism that could make him a versatile edge rushing piece in Nolan’s varied fronts. That, combined with his upward trajectory, could make him an under-the-radar contributor next year.

Jalen Jelks

Jalen Jelks will effectively be a rookie in 2020 since he spent the entirety of the 2019 season on the injured reserve with some mysterious injury that was never revealed. But the productive Pac 12 edge rusher - he had 15.5 sacks in 39 games at Oregon - fell to the 241st pick in the seventh round of the 2019 draft because of his tweener status.

Measuring at 6’5” and 245 pounds, Jelks had been played nearly everywhere on the defensive line of scrimmage, even as a 2-technique defensive tackle. His height and athleticism made him a mismatch in college but made it difficult to truly evaluate his best role at the next level. Dallas decided to take him in the seventh round and essentially gamble on his raw potential.

Now listed at 256 pounds on the team’s site, it seems that Jelks beefed up a bit to fit into a more traditional 4-3 defensive end role like Marinelli preferred, but Nolan’s arrival could reverse that. Coming into the draft, Jelks was noted for a high motor, incredible length, and consistently winning his pass rush reps with pure athleticism. However, he had glaring weaknesses in run defense and pass rush moves, and the long list of positions he played didn’t help.

Jelks was at his best as an edge rusher attacking the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. He saw enough snaps from a stand up role to be able to fit as a situational pass rusher in a 3-4, or as an undersized defensive end in a 4-3. Under Nolan, he could do both. Jelks probably isn’t a guy you want to be dropping back in coverage at all, but sometimes just the potential for an edge player to drop back can trick opposing quarterbacks.

While Jelks missed the whole regular season, he was productive in the two preseason games he played in. Jelks compiled five total tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback knockdown. If Jelks can build on those flashes and grow as a pass rusher, he might be able to carve out a nice little role for himself on this new-look defense.