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Top 2021 free agents at positions of need for the Cowboys: Defensive tackles & linebackers

Help for the Cowboys defense at these positions could cost.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going to close out our series on defensive free agents that could be available to the Cowboys in this upcoming offseason. We used this Top 50 free agents list from ESPN for our potential candidates. Our first in the series was on safeties, of which there is a relatively big market. Then we did corners, and now we’re moving on to defensive tackles and linebackers together since the list was limited with possibilities. We’ll pass on defensive ends/EDGE players since that’s probably not where the free agent money for the Cowboys is going to go.

As we noted in the previous articles, this year is going to be different in free agency due to the salary cap and COVID. Here is a quick reminder of how things could go.


Things are going to be different this year in free agency due to COVID knocking the salary cap down into a predicted range of $175-180 million. We discussed the ramifications of that previously in the safeties article, but basically it boils down to this.

All of that is a long way of saying that just because a free agent is ranked highly, and in a normal year might be out of the Cowboys range, this year could be different. Players might take cheaper deals to hit free agency again next year, or they might have to settle for lesser contracts once the initial burst of money is gone.

PFT said it this way:

At that amount, things could get very ugly for plenty of teams and players. As the source characterized it, the commencement of the 2021 league year on March 17 will destroy the middle class of veteran free agents. Plenty of players will be cut or not re-signed.

By way of example, a player like Ndamukong Suh, who was paid $7 million in 2020, will likely get something closer to $3 million in 2021. Many teams will be able to offer veterans only $1 million per year.

Given that the Cowboys are ranked 12th in amount of cap room right now, who knows how this will all shake out. Yes, Dak Prescott is going to take a huge bite, but they may ne able to structure that deal to give them some room this year.


Okay, on to the candidates.

Defensive tackles

3. Leonard Williams, Edge/DT

2020 team: New York Giants | Age entering 2021 season: 27

The past year has been awfully good for Williams, who was traded to the Giants in 2019 and found a home in new coach Joe Judge’s defense. His 11.5 sacks were a career high and more than he had amassed in the previous three seasons combined. And now Williams has enormous leverage over the Giants, who decided not to sign him to an extension before finalizing the trade. He spent 2020 as their franchised player.

Obviously getting someone like Williams and plugging him in as a 3-tech would be an ideal situation for Dallas. It’s likely not going to happen for two reasons. One, even though the Giants are in slightly negative territory on the salary cap, they will likely do everything possible to keep Williams. And two, even with all the craziness with the salary cap and COVID, the Cowboys won’t spend the resources needed to lure Williams to Dallas.

37. Larry Ogunjobi, DT

2020 team: Cleveland Browns | Age entering 2021 season: 27

A three-year starter, Ogunjobi has been a force at times in the interior line. He might be better suited to playing the 3-technique in a 4-3 defense, rather than the nose tackle, but he has plenty of tape doing both.

Ogunjobi is an interesting player. The Browns have plenty of money, but they also have plenty of other, bigger-name free agents to pay. Ogunjobi may get lost in the shuffle. He is an above-average run-defender, something the Cowboys desperately need, and has shown flashes of getting to the quarterback. Given a bigger role, he might really reach his potential.

Linebackers

19. Lavonte David, LB

2020 team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Age entering 2021 season: 31

On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine a 31-year-old linebacker generating a ton of interest in free agency, especially if his own team has decided against re-signing him. But the fact of the matter is that he is still playing a pretty high level, especially in pass defense. He might have to go year to year from a contract perspective, but he should certainly be considered a high-level starter for 2021.

The Cowboys need a third linebacker if Sean Lee retires, especially if the team is going to play more base defense than they did previously. There are indications we might see three linebackers on the field more under the Quinn/Seattle defense. They would ideally like players who can run sideline-to-sideline with pass coverage skills.

David is getting long in the tooth for an NFL linebacker, but his skills are still there. But, his cost, even for a one-year deal, might be too rich for the Cowboys who already have Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.

23. Matt Milano, LB

2020 team: Buffalo Bills | Age entering 2021 season: 27

Not too many people outside of Buffalo have heard of Milano, a fifth-round draft pick in 2017. But people who watch the Bills closely know he has developed into a reliable three-down linebacker who can be counted on to play the run, perform well in pass coverage and even rush the passer on occasion. He would have a sneaky active market.

This is another guy who might fit the bill, but who might end up with an active market. The Cowboys would like to have a third linebacker if Sean Lee retires. It’s just hard seeing them ponying up the money required for one at this level.

50. Eric Wilson, LB

2020 team: Minnesota Vikings | Age entering 2021 season: 26

Wilson went from being a valuable backup to a 15-game starter in 2020, filling in for the injured Anthony Barr. He has enough good tape, with 122 tackles and three interceptions, to either tempt the Vikings to re-sign him as a starter or generate under-the-radar interest on the free-agent market.

Wilson has gone form UDFA to legit for the Vikings and will now try to cash in. He is a turnover-creating machine who is rated highly in pass defense. His market should be interesting, but again, this might fall out of the Cowboys territory.

Of course, the math changes on any of these linebackers should the Cowboys decide that Jaylon Smith is not their future. Then you have a real situation where getting a quality, experienced veteran becomes a necessity.