The Dallas Cowboys defense in 2020 in one word was atrocious. They ranked 28th in total defense and gave up the most points in franchise history. With how awful that defense was, along with the season-ending injury to star quarterback, Dak Prescott, it was easy to see why the Cowboys ended the 2020 season with a record of 6-10.
Typically, with rough seasons comes higher draft positions in the upcoming NFL draft. This was certainly the case as Dallas had the tenth overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. Initially, many draft pundits projected Dallas to take a cornerback with the tenth pick. What happened next was a blessing in disguise.
The two top cornerbacks went eighth to the Panthers and ninth to the Broncos. Dallas was then on the clock, until they weren’t. That’s when the unthinkable happened. The Cowboys and their bitter rival, the Eagles, made a trade which had Philly moving up to ten and Dallas moving back to twelfth while also receiving pick 84 in the third round. Philly took DeVonta Smith out of Alabama, and then Chicago moved up to take Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields at pick eleven. Dallas then took the best player available and arguably the best player in the whole draft, Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons.
In the same offseason as drafting Parsons, the Cowboys made another tremendous move by hiring defensive guru Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator. Adding those two pieces meant the Cowboys were on their way to fixing up arguably the worst defense in team history. Going by the numbers, and numbers don’t lie, Dallas’ defense made a huge leap from 2020 to 2021 as the total defense improved to the seventh-best in the league. Going from near the bottom to almost the top five in just one season is quite an accomplishment and the interesting part about this stat is DeMarcus Lawrence only played in seven of those games.
There is one stat in particular that stands out as great importance, and that is the amount of sacks Dallas had in 2021 without Lawrence versus what they had in 2020 with a full season with DeMarcus Lawrence. In the 2020 season, Dallas compiled 31 sacks which tied them with the New York Jets for 20th in the league. By comparison, in 2021, Dallas totaled 41 sacks which were tied for 13th in the league with the Arizona Cardinals.
Moving forward to the upcoming 2022 NFL season, Dallas had some movement along the edge as Randy Gregory took his talents to Denver. With the void left by Gregory, Dallas brought in a Dan Quinn via free agency guy. Dan Quinn and Dante Fowler have a long history together. In addition to adding Fowler to the roster, the Cowboys added another edge player via the draft by selecting Sam Williams in the second round. Prior to adding Fowler and Williams to the mix, Dallas already had some depth at the position. Depth at a position doesn’t necessarily mean every player is going to be a major contributor. In fact, with the amount of edge players vying for a roster spot in 2022, there will be some cuts along the way.
Sifting through the edge players currently on the roster, there are five that stand out from the pack who by season's end will be top five on the team in sacks. Let’s start with number five and work our way to number one.
Armstrong has been a Cowboy since being drafted in the fourth round in 2018. His sack total in 59 career games is only 7.5, however, five of those came last season. As a fourth-round pick, it’s no surprise that it took him some time to find his groove and he will try to build off of last season. Dallas clearly prioritized him as he signed a new contract in the offseason. A breakout season in 2022 is certainly a possibility, however, to keep things modest, four sacks is the magic number which as a rotation guy is decent production.
Dante Fowler Jr.
Fowler had high expectations coming out of Florida and being the third overall pick in 2015. 91 games into his career, he hasn’t lived up to the hype. However, he’s shown flashes of that hype when he recorded eight sacks in 2017 and 11.5 sacks in 2019. As a Dan Quinn guy, Fowler should have a slight bounce-back season with a total of 5.5 sacks in 2022.
As the 56th overall pick in the second round of this year’s draft, Dallas has clearly made Williams a priority. A priority to where he will get plenty of run by season’s end according to Mike McCarthy.
“I think we’d all agree that Sam Williams looks like a guy that was born to play professional football. He has the gifts. He has the physical traits. He had two pass rushes (Friday and) ... he was clean in the backfield. He has that kind of ability. He’s in a great place.’’
It makes sense why McCarthy would be impressed by Williams as he produced 12.5 sacks in 13 games last season in the SEC which is the best conference in all of college football. Now 12.5 sacks in an NFL season is very much doable in the near future for Williams. To keep things modest, six sacks in his rookie campaign are very much in the cards. By years two and three, double-digit sacks could very well be the norm for Sam Williams.
Tank seems pretty confident that he will regain the team sacks leader crown.
“Become the sack leader again,” Lawrence said of his goals in 2022. “I let a rookie show me up last year. ... Shoutout to my boy, Micah (Parsons), but restate my dominance. Let everybody know that I’m coming, how I feel, and the type of respect I’m going to demand when I step on that field.”
Back in 2017 and 2018 Lawrence had his best seasons when he tallied up 14.5 and 10.5 sacks respectively. Since 2018 however, he has only sacked the quarterback a total of 14.5 times. 2021 was essentially a lost season for the Tank due to injury. Projecting a healthy Lawrence in 2022, along with an improving pass rush that can help take the load off of him, a ten-sack season is the call.
The second-year player out of Penn State, took the league by storm in his rookie season by not only becoming the Defensive Rookie of the Year, but also becoming an All-Pro. Last season, Parsons tallied up 13 sacks which were third all-time by a rookie. The NFL rookie sack record is held by “The Freak” Jevon Kearse, who is the uncle of current Cowboys strong safety Jayron Kearse. Many pundits would say that the sky is the limit for Parsons, and just about everyone in Cowboys nation is hoping Parsons is a Cowboy for life. For being as talented as he is, Parsons is very confident in his abilities, as he should be. So confident in fact that he responded to Lawrence’s comments about restating his dominance by saying this:
“I’m sorry to tell him he’s never getting that back. It makes me want to compete. It’s healthy for the locker room. I want D Law to step up and be who he is. I’m not taking that away from him. He can be a 10-sack guy. Great. But if 10’s the number, I’m going for 20…race to the quarterback.”
It sounds like a friendly competition is brewing to see who can grab the proverbial throne as team sack leader. This has to bring a smile to all Cowboys fans' faces, and a look of fear on opposing quarterbacks faces. Although the competition is going to be fierce and fun to watch, Micah Parsons will come out on top as the Dallas Cowboys sacks leader by posting 15 sacks in 2022.