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Cowboys roster breakdown: Work needed to keep defensive end from becoming a weakness

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Free agency hits this position hard for the Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys should have some new emphasis on defense under new coordinator Mike Nolan and the rest of his staff, which only features one holdover from last season in Leon Lett. We’re not exactly sure how things will look, but we are certain that Nolan wants the best roster he can get. He is planning on keeping a 4-3 scheme. However, that is not as significant as many make it out to be, and he and Jim Tomsula are likely to throw in some 3-4 ideas at times. What they will definitely need is talent to rush the passer, and defensive end is just one more place Dallas has some important holes to fill.

Currently under contract

  • DeMarcus Lawrence
  • Tyrone Crawford
  • Dorance Armstrong Jr.
  • Joe Jackson
  • Jalen Jelks
  • Daniel Wise

Lawrence is the obvious lead dog in this pack. Crawford is valuable for his position flex, but represents a big cap hit, and this is the first year the team could come out ahead with releasing him. He is already being discussed as a possible restructure or renegotiation target to free up a bit of that space. Armstrong came on a bit last season, but is still very much a developing player. The two JJs and Wise are mostly unknowns at this point.

Current free agents

  • Robert Quinn
  • Michael Bennett
  • Kerry Hyder
  • Christian Covington

Quinn is the big pending loss as last season’s sack leader, but recent reports have him interested in another year with the Cowboys, and the team seems responsive. Despite concerns about the other free agents the team has to figure out, they have the cap space to keep the ones they really want, and as with Crawford, they have some moves they can make to find more space as needed. Bennett is likely gone. Hyder may be a low cost option to bring back, but would probably be a late move if he doesn’t get a better offer elsewhere. Covington may have some appeal as a lower cost version of Crawford, but he is also likely not as effective.

Available outside free agents

If a lot of these names seem familiar, you must have read the preceding installment of this series on linebackers. Nolan’s experience with 3-4 defenses makes pass rushers from those systems more viable as an option, so they are included with the 4-3 DEs, and the 3-4 DEs are also here. Age is also noted for each. As normal, the order here is based NFL Trade Rumor’s ranking of the top 100 free agents this year. (Quinn is number 49 on that list, and Bennett is 90.)

  • Jadeveon Clowney 27
  • Chris Jones 27
  • Yannick Ngakoue 25
  • Shaq Barrett 27
  • Arik Armstead 26
  • Dante Fowler Jr. 26
  • Bud Dupree 27
  • Matthew Judon 27
  • Leonard Williams 27
  • Kyle Van Noy 29
  • Shelby Harris 29
  • Michael Brockers 29
  • Jason Pierre-Paul 31
  • Carl Nassib 27
  • Mike Daniels 31
  • Derek Wolfe 30
  • Emmanuel Ogbah 26
  • Jabaal Sheard 31
  • Shaq Lawson 27
  • Vic Beasley 28

That’s a lot of players, and not all may actually fit what Nolan and Tomsula have in mind. But even if the Cowboys bring Quinn back, the size of the pool here should draw some interest from Dallas. It is unlikely, as always, that they will be in the first wave of free agency here, but look for a signing or two in the second or third ones.

Top draft possibilities

Once again, taken from the CBS Sports ranking.

  • 1 Chase Young - Ohio State
  • 12 A.J. Epenesa - Iowa
  • 14 K’Lavon Chaisson - LSU
  • 19 Yetur Gross-Matos - Penn State
  • 38 Terrell Lewis - Alabama
  • 39 Curtis Weaver - Boise State
  • 40 Julian Okwara - Notre Dame
  • 66 Josh Uche - Michigan
  • 77 Jonathan Greenard - Florida
  • 85 Jabari Zuniga - Florida
  • 90 Bradlee Anae - Utah
  • 96 Darrell Taylor - Tennessee
  • 99 Khalid Kareem - Notre Dame

Another long list, and one that could well draw interest from the Cowboys. The cluster at the end may come into play for the third-round pick for Dallas, currently 82nd overall.

Young is certainly going to be out of reach, but with how players can slide and other teams’ needs come into play, every other player on this list could be a possibility. Depending on how free agency goes, the Cowboys may have edge rusher as a priority this year. This could be a position where Dallas takes one from each column by the time things shake out.

Links to previous installments:

Linebackers

Safety

Cornerback

Note: Updated at 11:17 CT to add Daniel Wise, who was missed in the original article.