The three top defenses in the NFL in terms of EPA (Expected Points Added) are the following:
What do those three defenses all have in common you may ask?
Dominant players on the interior of their defensive line.
For the Rams, their entire defense revolves around Aaron Donald. The ability to rush the passer and disruption in the running game - all sits on Donald’s shoulders, and he does more than enough to carry the load. For the Steelers? T.J. Watt is a big reason that defense is as good as it is, but veterans Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu are just as much to thank for the defenses success in 2020. And by now, Cowboys fans better be familiar with Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Tim Settle.
The Cowboys projected starters at defensive tackle in 2021 are currently Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore. While those players did show promise in 2020, Hill is currently on IR with a torn ACL, and was graded as one of the worst defensive tackles in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. For Gallimore, there have been signs of life with the former Oklahoma Sooner, but consistency is something he will need to work on as his career progresses. With those two currently as the penciled in starters, the Cowboys may look to the draft to add a talented defensive tackle to push Hill and Gallimore for starting reps, but they will quickly learn that those players likely don’t exist in the 2021 NFL Draft at a price they will be willing to pay. So where do they look?
2021 NFL Free Agency.
Now for this plan to work, two things will need to happen. The Jones family will need to adjust their free agency plan, and more than likely spend a bit more than they normally do, and they will need to FINALLY realize how important good defensive tackle play is to a defenses success. Let’s look at three realistic names that the Cowboys would be wise to target when NFL free agency kicks off in March.
Sheldon Rankins - 6’2” 305-lbs - UFA (New Orleans Saints)
A former first-round pick by the Saints in 2016 will be hitting free agency in 2021. Rankins, 26 years old, has started 33 games in his career with the Saints, and has fallen into more of a rotational role in 2020 with the emergence of Malcom Brown and David Onyemata, as well as dealing with some minor injuries. Rankins is known for his ability to rush the passer, while maintaining his quality as a run-defender as well. When watching tape of Rankins over the 2020 season, you see a player that plays with tremendous effort, a plan when rushing the passer, and excellent traits to excel down in the trenches. Rankins fits more of the under-tackle (three-technique) role, than the big space-eating role, but does a nice job of defending the run as well as rushing the passer.
Another masterful play by Kelce, getting 2 blocks on this QB keeper. If it wasn't for the great pursuit tackle by Sheldon Rankins this play might've gone the distance! pic.twitter.com/zU1ok3vebT— (Salary Cap Guru) Traw (@Whatshis40) December 16, 2020
Spotrac Market Value: $11.3 AAS
Dalvin Tomlinson - 6’3” 317-lbs - UFA (New York Giants)
This is the way.
While Dalvin Tomlinson isn’t Aaron Donald as a pass rusher, he is an absolute stud against the run, and a force in the middle of a defense. Tomlinson, a former second-rounder by the Giants, has really found his away over the last few seasons in New York, and if the Giants lets him walk in free agency, the Cowboys need to be the first team to call his agent and get a deal started. Tomlinson has three sacks so far in 2020 (seven in his career), and has a pass rush grade of 75.7 by Pro Football Focus. While he does some really nice things rushing the passer as the nose tackle, he’s a force against the run as well, keeping linemen tied up and out of the second-level. If the the Cowboys defense wants to see its run defense improve, while also upgrading at the nose from a pass rush standpoint, Dalvin Tomlinson is the route to go.
dalvin tomlinson and dexter lawrence switching positions— Rohan Sanghani (@RohanSanghani4) December 15, 2020
tomlinson is so much better it's crazy
watch tomlinson cross face to try to gain a gap back from the power puller to replace the mike's fit. pretty hard to gain an advantage when you can't even move the him from the A-gap pic.twitter.com/Hyvi6rO0Dw
Spotrac Market Value: $9.5 AAS
Shelby Harris - 6’3” 300-lbs - UFA (Denver Broncos)
If the Cowboys want to go the veteran route, Shelby Harris is the ideal candidate coming out of Denver. Harris, a 30-year-old who has spent time with both the Raiders and Broncos, and has had two great years in Denver in 2019 and 2020. In 2020, Harris has played in and started nine games for the Broncos, he has registered three sacks, and has graded out extremely well by Pro Football Focus, holding a 87.9 overall grade (71.6 run grade and a 84.5 pass rush grade), that has him ranked as the seventh best defensive linemen out of 127 possible candidates. Harris has played primarily 3-4 defensive end in Denver, but can slide inside and play three-technique with zero issues. Not only would Harris give the Cowboys a starting caliber interior lineman, but also a player who has position flex to play defensive end as well in a pinch, and can fit into a “multiple” defense given his versatility. Think of Harris as a much better Tyrone Crawford, that has stayed healthy for most of his career. His effort, pass rush ability, and stoutness against the run should make him a prime candidate for the Cowboys, needing veteran, starting quality defensive tackle play.