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Setting the scene for the Cowboys’ 2021 offseason roster moves (Part II - Defense)

Time to discuss the defense. There’s a LOT to talk about.

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

Looking at the offensive side of the ball, the Dallas Cowboys have some issues to deal with. But those seem rather straightforward when compared to the work they need to get done for the defense. There are just so many problems with the roster. Here is what they have and what needs to be added.

Defensive end

Dallas has a solid pair of starters in DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. They probably are a lot better than just solid, but we won’t oversell things here. For depth they have Dorance Armstrong, who saw a lot of time on the field last year, and Bradlee Anae, who, well, didn’t. The Cowboys will carry five or six DEs into the season, so they at least have to come up with one more, and neither Armstong or Anae are certain to hang onto their spots.

The team may want to use free agency to shore things up before the draft, but probably will look first to their own. Aldon Smith was one of the few signings last year that actually worked out. He may have raised his price tag enough that the frequently parsimonious Jones family may not choose to try very hard to bring him back. Ron’Dell Carter is an exclusive rights free agent, so they do have complete control over re-signing him at what is a known and affordable price. However, like Anae, they really don’t have any proof he is the end they want.

While they could also seek outside free agents, they are not likely to even consider the better ones available, because they probably see the need being for depth, not a potential starter. That means any such acquisitions will once again be a bargain-bin type deal.

That makes the draft the most likely way for them to add talent here, since they have that rookie contract to hold cap costs down. While there are probably too many higher priorities to make this a first-round option, they are plenty of day two and three possibilities out there. It is likely that they will use a mid-round pick to help here.

Defensive tackle

Neville Gallimore played his way into a starting job. It does have to be remembered how depleted the interior of the D line was getting, of course. Trysten Hill is coming back from injury, and Justin Hamilton also saw playing time last season.

This is a big one. They need a 1-tech and better 3-tech talent. Antwaun Woods is now a restricted free agent, which means they can match an outside offer if they choose. That just feels unlikely, although certainly not impossible. What does seem a real possibility is that they re-sign Gerald McCoy, who was lost to injury at the very beginning of training camp last year. They parted on apparently good terms and he reportedly was involved with the team last year, including some mentoring for Gallimore.

Dallas could take a major step forward by, say, signing J.J. Watt, who has been released. And Ndamukong Suh is set to join the market. However, as normal, there seems to be no interest in a free agent that would come with a major price tag. It doesn’t matter how much of a difference they might make.

What may still be in the cards is a second or third tier signing, and there are a slew of those. Hopefully, it won’t be another Dontari Poe. But even if they have a player that doesn’t work out, it won’t be terrible as long as they also address things in the draft.

We have long bemoaned the Cowboys’ aversion to using a first-round pick on a defensive tackle, but this is a draft class that argues in favor of that very approach. Things look a lot more interesting in the middle rounds, with some later possibilities also out there. As long as they don’t wait too long, there may be some good value. And with Hill and Gallimore, they have shown a willingness to go after DTs on day two of the draft. That might be the sweet spot for them.

Linebacker

This is a mess. They have last year’s starters, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, coming back. But this is a real challenge for the new defensive staff, because neither looked good for much of the snaps last year. They also return a trio of former UDFAs in Luke Gifford, Francis Bernard, and Azur Kamara. If you don’t recall the latter, it’s not surprising, since he did not take a snap last year as one of the many who wound up on IR.

They need some depth, and maybe starters. Joe Thomas might be one of their own free agents they go after, and Justin March has always been highly regarded by the staff. Both might come at a reasonable price. Sean Lee seems destined for retirement, or at least not being re-signed.

Free agency will likely be approached here in the same way as defensive tackle. There are certainly a ton of names out there. And frankly, they shouldn’t spend much on an off ball linebacker.

That carries over to the draft, where the team has long overspent on the position. A couple of years ago the investments in Smith and Vander Esch looked smart, but now things have soured. There aren’t a lot of standout prospects early in the draft. If they don’t try to take a plunge before day three, the Cowboys might be able to find some value.

Predicting what the team will do is of course perilous, but given the investments, it seems a pretty good bet that they are going to try and fix Smith and Vander Esch, while just cheaply shoring up the depth. Given everything, that may not be such a bad idea, especially if they can come up with some real answers at DT.

Cornerback

Free agency threatens to take a big chunk out of the roster, with Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and special teams ace C.J. Godwin all set to hit the market. That just leaves them with Anthony Brown, Travon Diggs, Deante Burton, and Rashard Robinson, plus a futures contract signing or two. If they are going to look to their own, here’s a bit of a surprise prediction: look for them to try and keep Godwin for that ST prowess. For the regular CB rotation, there are some big names with commensurately big price tags out there. Richard Sherman has been mentioned due to his connection with DC Dan Quinn. Patrick Peterson is also someone that has the fan base interested. And if there is any position where the ownership might be willing to part with some serious coin, this may be it. Still, there could be bidding wars for any of the better free agent CBs. The Cowboys might consider it a high enough priority to go and get their guy. It is possible. Just not exactly likely.

With the talent coming out of college and the great need, this is a position that is squarely in the conversation for that tenth overall pick, or the team might try to trade back for someone like Jaycee Horn or Asante Samuel Jr. There are also several intriguing names that might be there for them in the second or third rounds. It does seem just about mandatory that they land a corner before day three rolls around. Fortunately, that is very doable. Double-dipping in the later rounds also is an attractive idea.

However they acquire them, Dallas will see one and possibly two new CB starters in their nickel defense. Let’s just hope they make smart decisions.

Safety

For many years, the Cowboys have had a real need at safety. They have not properly addressed it, and the same issue returns the following year. It is a true Cowboys tradition.

And it needs to stop. While they seem to have found a legit box safety in Donovan Wilson, that free safety job is still crying for someone better to fill. Reggie Robinson II is the only carryover at that position, according to the depth chart at Ourlads. Since he saw so few snaps last season, it is hard to have a lot of confidence that he is going to be the answer, especially since some think he needs to move back to corner. They could try and bring back Xavier Woods, but he really is better inside the box. They also have Darian Thompson and Steven Parker back, but neither seem to be what the team is looking for.

They tried to upgrade in free agency last year, but Ha Ha Clinton-Dix didn’t even make it out of camp. And there is little chance they will want to spend much at all this offseason.

There is hope in the draft, with some decent numbers of mid-round quality safeties coming out. But even the third and fourth rounds, where the Cowboys are expected to have compensatory picks to work with, seem too rich for their tastes when safeties are concerned. That truly needs to change. I guess we can just keep hoping to see pigs aloft.

Sadly, it is more likely we see another bargain bin free agent and then a fifth-round pick or later all that is used to address this issue. At least I can look forward to just copying and pasting the first paragraph of this section next year.

That’s the basic layout of the roster prior to the start of the league year and free agency. There is a lot for the team to do, and a lot of ways to go about it.