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Cowboys 2021 free agent prospects: The rest of the defense

After looking at the bumper crop of corners, it’s time to see about addressing the rest of the D.

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Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Could he be worth a shot?
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Free agency is fast approaching for the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL. We aren’t sure exactly how fast, as the NFL has not released an official date. They have tentatively set the last day to designate a player on the franchise tag of March 9, which is extremely pertinent for the Cowboys. They will need to sort out what they are doing about Dak Prescott to know how much cap space they have to use in free agency. With the players currently under contract, it is not to hard to figure out that they will almost certainly be going heavy, perhaps exclusively, defense.

We previously took a look at the best cornerbacks available, based on PFF’s top 100 free agent ranking. That was perhaps the most plentiful position this year, with 20 making the list. There were so many we had to winnow out those that just seemed obviously too expensive for certain decision makers in Dallas (cough) Stephen Jones (cough) to consider, and a few that just did not seem like good fits. It still left ten players to consider for the Cowboys. The rest of the defensive positions are not as well represented. Also, there are no edge rushers in this breakdown, because that is the one group that seems in decent shape for them, with the only real consideration for Dallas being re-signing Aldon Smith.

So here are the rest of the defensive positions, again filtered by some of the same factors used for cornerback.

Defensive tackle

We’re being more cost conscious here and at safety than with the corners, because the Cowboys are notoriously averse to spending on those two positions.

46. DI SHELBY HARRIS

Harris is a 3-tech candidate. The Cowboys need a big nose tackle type, those are just not common. They also still need to bolster that position, and if they do not get something done to bring Gerald McCoy back, Harris would be an excellent choice. However, he is on the high side financially, likely getting over $11 million a year. Maybe there is a slight chance that Jones could finally loosen those purse strings. Slight. Very, very slight.

98. DI NDAMUKONG SUH

Why not list any of the defensive tackles between Harris and Suh? There aren’t any. This is a very skimpy group this year, at least according to how PFF evaluates them.

But now you are talking Stephen Jones territory, because Suh is only expected to get $6.75 million on a one-year deal. That’s getting close to the $4.5 million a year they signed Dontari Poe for, and according to PFF, he likely has a good bit more in the tank.

Suh certainly isn’t the force he once was, but he is still able to maintain an absurd workload for as many snaps as he’s logged over his NFL career.

The 788 snaps he played this season was the lowest total of his career, yet it was still the 11th-most among all interior defenders. Suh racked up 50 total pressures and 25 defensive stops and can still be a very solid member of a defensive line. At this point, he is a mercenary for hire on a short-term contract. If a team has a problem spot up front, Suh can fix it.

And at his reported weight of 313 lbs, he would be a real candidate for that early down 1-tech that the Cowboys have sorely lacked. He is not the 330+ player some teams employ, but those are extremely rare, and Suh would likely fit more what the team apparently seeks. That would seem to fit Dan Quinn’s approach as well. Further, he is a true sack threat from the interior, having notched 64.5 over his eleven years in the league, including six during the 2020 regular season.

Balanced against that is Suh’s penchant for dirty play. We might not like him a lot as a person, but sometimes you have to take the bad with the good to make things work. Dallas still might face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers trying to re-sign Suh, but we’ll have to see how that plays out first.

99. DI SHELDON RANKINS

Rankins is more the big 3-tech type, but still has enough size at 303 to fill in as a 1-tech. He does bring some injury history. That frankly has seldom scared the Cowboys off as they think they are smarter than most in finding values that way. Rankins is actually expected to be more costly than Suh, but just by half a million a year. He also is a threat to get to the quarterback, although his career 17.5 sacks are just a fraction of Suh’s over a much shorter span of games.

Even if the Cowboys do bring McCoy back, it would be expected to be for something like the $3 million they paid out for him. That may still leave enough money to go and bolster the interior of the defensive line with another veteran.

Safeties

There were several safeties in the upper half of PFF’s list, and all were far too expensive to really think twice about. That brings us to the ones that might be seen as both good fits and bargains. There are only two.

67. S MALIK HOOKER

He has all the signs the Cowboys could be interested in him, and that is not necessarily a good thing. He has an injury history to be concerned about, has had some struggles, and would likely be a bit of a reclamation project. But he is much more of a free safety, which is really what the Cowboys need.

Hooker will likely need to take a near-minimum “prove-it” deal to get his career back on track.

That looks to be around a $2 million contract to get him on board, and that should pique Jones’ interest.

96. S JAQUISKI TARTT

Another player who has been limited due to injuries, as well as some inconsistent play, he still has some nice upside and has shown an ability to play both in the box and deep. Position flex still seems to carry some weight in Dallas.

With so many safeties available, Tartt may get lost in the shuffle and end up as a great value signing in the second or third wave of free agency after missing the 49ers’ final seven games. Tartt has a high floor both in coverage and against the run and is a perfect guy to pair next to just about anyone.

His expected price tag of $4.5 million annually is not intimidating, or at least shouldn’t be. He could be a good answer to shoring up the position.

Linebackers

This a position that for the Cowboys is the opposite of defensive tackle and safety. They overvalue and overpay the position. With Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch coming off a bad year, plus Vander Esch’s lingering injury concerns, this might be a place the team is very interested in shoring up things - and being freer with money than they should be.

The pickings, however, are slim on PFF’s list.

37. LB MATT MILANO

Milano would fit as a WILL linebacker whose main task was in coverage, where he is best. He is only of interest if Quinn wants that kind of player to pair with an effective MIKE, and both those elements are open questions. He is fairly costly, with a projected price tag of $11.25 a year. Given the already large investment in Smith, that seems unwise. But Jones does seem to have no compunctions at spending on the position.

65. LB K.J. WRIGHT

He seems like a very good option if you are looking for a Sean Lee replacement to back up the starters.

Wright has been one of the league’s most consistent linebackers over his NFL career, and as he gets toward the end of it, he still provides a lot of value as a solid all-around player at the position. He finished the regular season with the eighth-best overall grade among linebackers at 75.3.

He is more of a run stopper than a coverage guy, but that may be just what the Cowboys are looking for. And at $6 million a year, his estimated cost would be much more palatable, at least to us.

94. LB DENZEL PERRYMAN

The final linebacker PFF has in their top 100 free agents, Perryman is pretty much the exact opposite of Milano.

Few players are better downhill thumpers than Perryman is; it’s just unfortunate for him that this is 2021 and not 1985. Perryman is coming off arguably his best season, albeit one in which his playing time totaled just 317 snaps. Perryman earned a PFF grade of 86.3 against the run, and his coverage grade of 74.1 represents the best figure of his career in that area. Two-down run-stuffers don’t have much of a role in today’s NFL, but Perryman is fun to watch given how he hits.

Given the problems the Cowboys had stopping the run, Perryman is at least worthy of consideration. He would be expected to cost about $6.5 million a year, but that may be a good value if he does fix those issues against the run.


This has been a fun exercise to try and find some of the better players the Cowboys might try and acquire in free agency. They need to shore up the defense at most positions. However, this also runs smack up against the well-known tendency of Jones to want to wait and hunt for bargains, which might mean that none of the names in these two articles have much relevance. But it would be nice to get some quality, even if it costs a bit more.