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Why passing on a defensive tackle early in the draft may make sense for the Cowboys

There could be a better way to get the defensive help the Cowboys need.

NFL: NFL Draft Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Once the Cowboys decided to make a change at head coach, there was a good possibility there would be change in the schemes and philosophies on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. As it happened, the offensive side of the ball doesn’t look like it’s going to change all that much with Kellen Moore still being the offensive coordinator and play-caller. Surely Mike McCarthy will add some of his own touches on that side of the ball, but for the most part the Cowboys offense should resemble the same unit that went out there in 2019.

On the defensive side of the ball there will be major changes. New coordinator Mike Nolan will be bringing in his philosophy and that is likely to alter things in a significant way. The Cowboys defense tended to be simplistic in design, relying more on execution than scheme to win the day. That is going to change under Nolan who prefers to disguise and use multiple looks to confuse an offense. Other things may change too, like the type of personnel preferred.

One area that has been noted and discussed is Nolan’s preference for larger defensive tackles. Under Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys wanted quicker, penetrating tackles that would get upfield. The Cowboys, at times, were vulnerable in the middle of the line to potent run games and some of that went to the makeup of their defensive tackles along with the scheme. Almost everyone, including Will McClay, thinks the Cowboys might get bigger in the middle.

In the past, the Cowboys have eschewed using high draft picks on interior defensive players. Given this new need at defensive tackle, it’s been a popular thing to mock the Cowboys as using their pick at #17 on a defensive tackle, specifically Javon Kinlaw. Or if not then, in the second round with a host of guys who fall in that range.

But maybe that’s not the best use of resources for the Cowboys. As someone who has long argued for the Cowboys to finally show some love to the defensive tackle position in the draft, it pains me to say that maybe this year they shouldn’t. Why?

Because the free agent market for defensive tackles is plentiful. While reviewing a listing of the best free agents under 25 years of age recently, this section under D.J. Reader caught the eye.

According to Pro Football Focus, Reader posted the third-best run-defense grade (with 250 or more snaps) and the best overall grade among free-agent interior defenders.

The final point is exciting considering the depth of the class.

Chris Jones, Javon Hargrave, Leonard Williams, Michael Brockers, Jarran Reed, Jordan Phillips, A’Shawn Robinson, Timmy Jernigan, Michael Pierce, Andrew Billings, Sheldon Day and Danny Shelton will flood the market with quality defensive tackles. Yet only one interior defender rates higher on this list than Reader heading into free agency, but more on that later.

Okay, a few things to unpack there. D.J. Reader is a legit player at the position and someone the Cowboys could look to target. But on this list of the top 10, there are three defensive tackles. Reader at #6, Leonard Williams at #8, and Chris Jones at #1. So if the Cowboys want to pay some top dollar, they can get someone. The list above also has some other options that won’t cost as much. Having so many good options means that a few quality players will be left taking an under-valued deal.

Of course, not every player on that list will fit with what the Cowboys want and some will return to their old teams. Still, there is a quality market for defensive tackles in free agency and that usually means there will be some bargains to be had.

So instead of dropping a top draft choice on a defensive tackle, the Cowboys may want to raid the free agent market.

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