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Cowboys defensive free agents 2021: Who stays and who goes?

Which defensive players are sticking around?

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Free agency is just around the corner. NFL teams will look to add pieces to their roster that will optimize their chances of success going forward. For the Dallas Cowboys, signing outside free agents isn’t something they’ve been real heavy on in recent years. They do bring back a handful of their own free agents as they look for low cost purchases to round out their roster.

On Saturday, we examined the Cowboys offensive free agents and attempted to predict which players are resigned, and which ones sign with another team. Today, we’re going to do the same with the defensive free agents.

Xavier Woods

The Cowboys made a great pick when they selected safety Xavier Woods in the sixth round of the 2017 draft. For the last three seasons, he’s been the team’s starting free safety, playing in all but four games over that span. Woods has been a solid player, but many were hoping to see him trend up after showing promise early on. Last season he wasn’t bad, but he took a slight step back and never became the player many were hoping to see.

Woods will have no trouble finding work, but his market value is going to take a hit for a couple reasons. First, there are a slew of talented safeties hitting free agency this year that includes: Justin Simmons (franchise tagged), Anthony Harris, Marcus Williams, Marcus Maye, and John Johnson III. Teams wanting a legit playmaker safety are in luck. However, Woods isn’t in this upper tier and his price is likely going to fall more in the discounted group. For that reason, it should allow the Cowboys to retain his services at a decent cost, allowing them that same mediocre floor without throwing a lot of money that way.

Prediction: Stays. Signs a three-year, $19.5 million deal ($6.5 M annually)

Jourdan Lewis

There was a time when it looked like the Cowboys found themselves a third-round steal in Lewis. He’s flashed some nice playmaking ability and he’s been a solid fixture in the secondary. Unfortunately, Lewis has limitations to his play and that has resulted in giving up some big plays in the passing game. He doesn’t posses the speed to play on the outside, and his size makes him a liability even when passes are contested.

Lewis is best suited for the slot, which also happens to be Anthony Brown’s best spot, so it’s hard seeing the Cowboys spending too much for a player who will be a depth guy at best. Instead, look for a team needing a solid slot corner to go after him in free agency. And while his cost should be relatively inexpensive, don’t be surprised if there is at least one buyer that believes Lewis wasn’t utilized to his potential in Dallas.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere, one-year, $3.0 million deal.

Chidobe Awuzie

Like Lewis, Awuzie was part of the cornerback remodel of 2017. And even though both of those guys may not return this season, it’s hard not to be pleased with what the Cowboys got from them during this time. In fact, a total of 22 cornerbacks were selected after Day 1 in that draft, and when it comes to what they’ve given their team on the field, Awuzie and Lewis are two of the largest contributors from that list.

Awuzie never turned into the star we were hoping for, but he still remains a very good cover corner. While it would be nice to keep him, the Cowboys will likely go another direction. As it stands right now, there’s a decent chance they could snag either Patrick Surtain or Caleb Farley with their 10th overall pick. A new star rookie paired with Trevon Diggs would make the Cowboys cornerback group a position of strength come 2022. Other teams will value a player like Awuzie more than Dallas, so his time with the Cowboys could be over.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere; three-year, $27 million ($9 M annually)

Aldon Smith

The Cowboys got good return on their one-year, $2 million investment when they took a chance on Aldon Smith. It especially looked nice early on as four of his five sacks on the year came in the first three games of the season. Of course, the downside of that is that he only got to the quarterback once over the last 13 games, including going the entire second half of the season without a sack.

Smith started strong, but then fizzled. The return of Randy Gregory had something to do with that as Smith’s snap counts dropped. Despite the sacks vanishing, the pressures never stopped and he proved he’s a good pass rusher. The removal of defensive lines coach Jim Tomsula (Smith’s coach in San Francisco) dampen a possible return on a team-friendly deal, so it seems more logical that Smith cashes in on his full value.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere, two years, $14 million ($7 M annually)

Tyrone Crawford

The multipurpose Crawford has been a reliable performer on this Cowboys defensive line for many years. From 2014 to 2018, he started at least 14 games, and you could usually count on him for four to five sacks a year. But things have dropped off considerably for the veteran defensive linemen. After suffering a season-ending hip injury in 2019, Crawford has only totaled five starts over the past two seasons. He just doesn’t look like the same player.

Age and wear may be catching up to him, and it’s hard seeing the Cowboys re-upping in him. It wouldn’t be unheard of to see a low-cost, one-year deal with the team to keep his leadership in the locker room, but it’s also possible he calls it quits.

Prediction: Retires.

Antwaun Woods

The Cowboys need reinforcements at the defensive tackle position, and this is especially true at the nose. For the last few years, Woods has served as a solid 1-tech, but his play has declined after his debut season with the Cowboys. In fact, over the past two seasons combined, he’s only had two more starts than he did in 2018.

Woods is a restricted free agent so the Cowboys have some level of control in whether or not they keep him. While they need a more effective nose tackle, Woods still gives them some solid depth, which should punch his ticket for one more year of service.

Prediction: Stays; signs a one-year, $2.1 right of first refusal tender.

Joe Thomas

The Cowboys have had Thomas in their back pocket for the last three seasons to give the team some depth at linebacker. Of his 40 games played in that span, he’s only started in six of them, but four of them came this past season after the group saw injuries to both Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee. And while the linebacker position suffered as a whole, Thomas performed okay, and he remains a solid backup.

It was a little shocking that he didn’t get signed to a slightly larger contract last offseason as the Cowboys were able to bring him back on a cheap one-year, $1.25 million deal. With money tight this year for all teams, a similar low-price deal is probably what he’s looking at as he’s not going to be getting starting LB money. That could put him wearing the star for one more season.

Prediction: Stays; signs a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

Sean Lee

The 2019 season was the first and only time that Lee played a full 16 games in his NFL career (although it should be noted that he played 15 games in 2016 and had his tape cut in the season finale). Unfortunately, Lee was back on the shelf last season with another injury, missing seven games.

While it’s nice to have Lee on the roster, the mileage on his body has taken a toll. As he’s done the last couple offseasons, Lee is again considering retirement, which would make that decision easy. But if he does want to return, hopefully it will be for a cheap deal as the time he misses just isn’t giving the team good bang for their buck.

Prediction: Retires.

Justin March

The veteran linebacker is nothing more than a special teams player as he didn’t log a single defensive snap last year. And that says a lot considering how banged up that position was. March’s value on special teams has been deemed roster worthy, but the team is getting more and more younger guys inserted within the unit who can also provide some defensive flex.

It won’t cost anyone much to sign him as he’ll only command a vet minimum salary, but the Cowboys already have better options on the roster with youngsters Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard vying for more opportunities.

Prediction: Signs elsewhere; one-year, $990,000 deal, but released during final roster cuts.