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Dorance Armstrong’s return is a nice consolation prize after Randy Gregory snafu

He’s not Randy Gregory, but Dorance Armstrong is still pretty good.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Football Team Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

It’s been a week for the Cowboys, and not in a good way. First, there was the whole Randy Gregory snafu, and that was followed by “legitimate interest” in both Von Miller and Za’Darius Smith, only for both to wind up elsewhere (although Smith is back on the market).

Thursday morning brought news that the team has now pivoted to re-signing Dorance Armstrong. This feels like a massive letdown because of the caliber of players that Gregory and Miller - and Smith, when healthy - are. It would be fair to respond to this news with a “Who cares?” type of attitude.

However, Armstrong is a darn good consolation prize, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. The emphasis here, of course, is on the phrase “consolation prize” and for good reason. Armstrong at his best is not Gregory, and he shouldn’t be confused as such.

Gregory is athletically one of the purest edge rushers in the NFL, although that perception has been clouded by how little he’s actually played in his career. The Cowboys rightfully counted themselves lucky to have Gregory, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Micah Parsons this past year, and all that firepower played a huge role in Dallas having such a great year defensively.

Had the Cowboys managed to get out of their own way and simply close the deal they were seconds away from closing, thus bringing Gregory back on a reported five-year deal, they would have boasted one of the better edge rushing units in the NFL. So, replacing Gregory in the mix with Armstrong is lesser in total quality by comparison.

That doesn’t mean their edge rushing will be bad now, or even that it can’t end up as one of the better units in the league. Lawrence is still here, and Parsons figures to get better now that he has a full year of experience under his belt. And, oh yeah, Armstrong isn’t too shabby either.

If you’ll remember, Armstrong was a fourth-round pick out of Kansas back in 2018. He had played a hybrid role in college, but became a full time 4-3 defensive end under Rod Marinelli. As a rookie, Armstrong saw little playing time behind Lawrence, Gregory, Tyrone Crawford, and Taco Charlton. The next year was similar, as the acquisitions of Robert Quinn, Kerry Hyder, and Michael Bennett left little time for Armstrong. Then there was Aldon Smith in 2020, coupled with Gregory’s late-season return to form.

This past season marked the first time in his career that Armstrong played in more than half of the team’s defensive snaps throughout the season; in fact, he had never played in more than a third of the team’s defensive snaps prior to 2021. It’s encouraging, then, that Armstrong set several career highs this year when finally given ample playing time. That includes five sacks and 22 pressures. Notably, Armstrong was also one of just two Cowboys defenders with 400 or more defensive snaps this year to never miss a tackle.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Gregory and Armstrong since 2018:

Randy Gregory vs Dorance Armstrong, 2018-2021

 Snaps Played Tackles Tackles for Loss Sacks Pressures QB Hits
 Snaps Played Tackles Tackles for Loss Sacks Pressures QB Hits
Randy Gregory 1475 85 19 16.5 70 52
Dorance Armstrong 1411 98 6 7.5 43 20

Consider that Gregory didn’t play at all during the 2019 season, and him still having a higher number of snaps is incredible. You can also see that Gregory has considerably more tackles for loss, sacks, pressures, and hits on the quarterback. That should be expected, but Armstrong isn’t too far behind.

Furthermore, Armstrong isn’t going to be counted on the way Gregory was. Gregory was a complete package in terms of edge players, and there are only so many of those. Armstrong will likely figure into a rotation with Tarell Basham, Chauncey Golston, as well as Dante Fowler, whom the team signed to a one-year deal on Friday.

Basham just came off a solid first year in Dallas, where his 21 pressures came in fourth on the team just behind Armstrong. He’s also been a reliable run defender, and finished 10th in run stop win rate among all edge defenders in 2020. Golston also had a solid rookie season, although he split time between the edge and playing inside. Meanwhile, Fowler is a former third overall pick who, outside of one great year in 2019, has failed to live up to his draft pedigree but offers potential in a limited role.

Then there’s the fact that Parsons is going to be moved down to the line of scrimmage on passing downs with some regularity, just as he did this past year. Perhaps we’ll see even more of that now. Either way, Parsons offers more juice coming off the edge on those passing downs than even Gregory did. Armstrong doesn’t have to be Gregory, but he can certainly help replicate some, though not all, of his production.

It’s a lot like Moneyball, a film that absolutely deserves to be watched right now even if you’ve already seen it several times. There’s a scene where Athletics general manager Billy Beane explains that, in trying to replace a trio of players who became too expensive for the small-market team, he is trying to find three players whose combined on base percentage can equal the combined on base percentage of the trio they’re losing. His point is that the Athletics aren’t going to get another player like star Jason Giambi, but they can find ways of replicating his production.

Now there’s no reason the Cowboys, the most valuable sports team in the world, should be as hard up for money as the Oakland Athletics. But they’re also not likely going to get another player like Gregory, although they can find a way to replicate his production. Parsons is a big part of that, but bringing back Armstrong to a rotation of Basham, Golston, and Fowler is also a first step towards doing just that. It’s still a consolation prize, sure, but it’s a pretty good consolation prize.

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