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Three ways the Cowboys could strengthen their defensive tackle position

Changes need to be made, but how should they go about it?

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys need defensive help, and they especially had trouble defending the run last season. The team finished the year with the second-worst run defense in the league. Eight times last season opposing teams rushed for at least 150 yards against them. Four times they gained over 200 yards, and twice they exceeded 290 yards including a 307-yard game against the Cleveland Browns. It was a nightmare.

The Cowboys need to strengthen their interior defensive line if they want to get this defense back on track, but how should they go about it? Today, we examine three different routes the team could explore and try to figure out what makes the most sense.

Free agency is not the answer

The simplest route to addressing a need is to just go shopping on the free agent market. The Cowboys have control of how much they want to spend, and they can meticulously look for the right guy at the right cost. Unfortunately, this is dangerous approach for two reasons.

First, there is a short list of players who we can label as “reliable” talents at the position. If the team is looking for one of the more proven players, it’s going to come at a price. Pro Football Focus compiled their list of free agent rankings as well as what they believe they’ll cost, and the top three defensive tackles came in as follows:

  • Leonard Williams (Giants) - signs a four-year, $80 million ($20M APY) with the Panthers
  • Dalvin Tomlinson (Giants) - re-signs with Giants for four years, $52.5 million ($13.1 M APY)
  • Shelby Harris (Broncos) - signs a three-year, $33.3 million ($11.1 M APY) with the Cardinals

The Giants have the top two free agent DTs, and are predicted to retain one of them. For the Cowboys to make a move for one of these players, it’s going to come at a huge cost. And while it’s easy to get a little hasty at this time in the offseason, it has to be noted that these moves are risky endeavors.

And for the record, the Eagles just released DeSean Jackson as well, which further illustrates just how trying to solve your problems through free agency can severely hamper your cap space.

And the second reason free agency is not the way to go is that should the Cowboys stick to their normal approach of looking for solid contributors at bargain prices, they’re likely to be paying for players who are not any better than what they already have. They tried that last year with Dontari Poe and we saw how that worked out.

Right now they have Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore, two solid players who are still developing. And they could retain Antwaun Woods as he is a restricted free agent. The team should not be looking to add a player who offers them very little (if any) of an upgrade to those guys. That’s not to say the Cowboys should remove themselves from the mix all together when it comes to defensive tackle shopping. But it does mean they should only jump if the perfect deal presents itself, and they should prepare to stand pat.

Prediction: Re-sign Gerald McCoy on a low-cost, playing time-incentive deal.

The draft is not the answer

The landscape of the draft does not provide any real elite talent at the defensive tackle position. The first DT to come off the board is probably going to be Alabama’s Christian Barmore who most consider a borderline first-round pick. If the Cowboys are interested in Barmore, then they could attempt to package a deal to move up a bit in the second round to secure his services. The Cowboys are expected to have two picks in round three (thanks to losing Byron Jones in free agency last year), so they can afford to give up a little draft capital to land the top defensive tackle in this year’s draft class. This is a move that should be attempted if the circumstances present themselves.

But outside of going after Barmore, there aren’t really a lot of alternate options. There are several defensive tackles grouped together in the Day 2 draft range, and the Cowboys can certainly take advantage of this depth by getting good value there. In fact, they did exactly that last season to score Gallimore in the third round. This is a good way to keep adding depth, but unless one of these darts stick, the chances of improving upon what they already have is not favorable.

Prediction: Cowboys draft a defensive tackle from USC in the third round.

A trade is the only way

If the Cowboys are serious about upgrading this position (and they should be), they need to be working the phones to go after a player who is a legit starter at the position. Now, teams aren’t just going to give away their talent for nothing, so it will come at a cost. But it would make sense to pony up that cost if you’re getting a player a team wants to keep versus a player a team is willing to let get away in free agency.

The key here for Dallas is to look for the right situation. If the Cowboys can corner a team who has a lot of depth at that position as well as looking to free up cap space, then that could present a great opportunity for them to swoop in and make a deal. Last week, we already mentioned the Saints David Onyemata as a possible trade target as New Orleans scrambles to get out of their huge financial situation.

Another player is Seattle’s Jarran Reed. The Seahawks have lots of depth along their interior line, and Reed is on the final yearof his contract. With Seattle’s current cap situation, he is not likely to be re-signed. The Seahawks could save $8 million if they traded him away and get a little draft capital in return. Geoff Shull from 12th Man Rising understands Reed’s situation and outlines a very realistic cost in this hypothetical trade scenario with New England.

In Reed’s situation, the Cowboys would be looking at a one-year rental for a price of $8 million, sorta like what they paid for edge rusher Robert Quinn a couple years ago. In the last two seasons that Reed has played a full 16 games (2018 and 2020), he combined for a total of 17 sacks. He’s also a very effective run-stopper. Whether it’s a one-and-done return or he sticks around longer, this type of move is low risk that gives the team an instant upgrade.

Or what if the Cowboys went big and went after Washington’s 2018 first-round pick Daron Payne? The team is loaded with defensive line talent with other first-rounders Jonathan Allen, Chase Young, and Montez Sweat in the trenches as well as another quality defensive tackle in Tim Settle. The abundance of talent along the defensive line could allow Washington to make moves to balance the talent on their team. Maybe they want to collect some extra draft capital and move up to partake in the quarterback sweepstakes? This type of deal wouldn’t come cheap, and it might seem more like a pipe dream, but it does illustrate the degrees of which the Cowboys could choose to operate to secure a legit defensive talent.

Prediction: It’s a nice thought, but it’s hard seeing the Cowboys making a move.

Poll

How do you think the Cowboys should approach the defensive tackle position?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Free agency
    (337 votes)
  • 51%
    The draft
    (979 votes)
  • 31%
    Make a trade
    (599 votes)
1915 votes total Vote Now