When a player leaves, new opportunities arise. It is only natural to wonder who will fill the snaps left behind. Who will receive the vacated targets with Amari Cooper now in Cleveland? Who will be the successor to Connor Williams; Tyler Smith or Connor McGovern?
But another discussed topic so far this offseason is the seemingly unclaimed Randy Gregory power vacuum. The Cowboys only added fuel to this debate by selecting Sam Williams in the second round and picking up Dante Fowler as one of their only external free agent signings. Which one will receive the bulk of the work and solidify themselves as the starting right defensive end opposite DeMarcus Lawrence?
The answer is probably neither of them.
Dorance Armstrong will be the Cowboys' breakout defensive player in 2022
For a quick exercise, pick the best 2021 defensive end out of this list:
ED Comparison- 2021 Stats
|Metric||Player A||Player B||Player C||Player D|
|Metric||Player A||Player B||Player C||Player D|
|PFF Run Defense Grade||63.4||67.5||46.5||43.8|
You likely realized that player D has the best stats in the pass rush but he played nearly 300 more snaps than anyone else in this group. Players B and C both had comparable stats in the pass rush with C getting the slight leg up. But then you got to the run defense snaps and likely saw that player B is exponentially better than anyone here, including C who is very weak against the run. That’s only run defense though.
So, you first eliminated player A realizing he didn’t lead any of the categories. From there, you probably made a tough decision between players B, C, and D. Do you take the overall season numbers of D, the pass-rushing efficiency of C, or the combo of solid pass rushing and great run defense in B?
Doesn’t matter who you chose, here are the players:
- A: Dante Fowler
- B: Dorance Armstrong
- C: Randy Gregory
- D: Brian Burns (2021 Pro Bowler)
This wasn't an attempt to cherry-pick. We wanted to include Armstrong’s 2022 competition (Fowler), who he is set to replace (Gregory), and a “good” defensive end. Based on this exercise, Armstrong, Gregory, and Burns were similarly productive in 2021.
Some of the analysis reads as though player A has the starting job locked up and player B will be a nice “rotational” piece. Dante Fowler and Sam Williams have been in the spotlight lately as they both look to have big seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. However, outside of DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong should be the best defensive end on the roster.
There were 65 players who exceeded 500 snaps in 2021. Of those players, Armstrong finished:
- T-39th most sacks (despite playing the seventh-fewest snaps in this group)
- T-22nd in batted passes
- T-29th in tackles
- T-7th in missed tackle rate
- T-8th fewest penalties
- 20th in PFF run-defense grade and fourth by PFF tackling grade
Dorance Armstrong finished within the top thirty in the majority of defensive end metrics last season despite playing the 59th most snaps among edge defenders. He didn’t see the field as much as others. But when he did, he was excellent.
The average starting defensive end last season saw 752 snaps. While this should be taken with a grain of salt; if Dorance Armstrong finished with 752 snaps last year, his extrapolated stats would look like: 8.5 sacks, 39.5 tackles, 51 total pressures, 32 QB hurries, 10 QB hits, one penalty, and 2.8 missed tackles. If you are keeping track, those stats are nearly identical to Brian Burns’ 2021 Pro Bowl season. This is still extrapolated using 100 fewer snaps than Burns took last year.
We discussed this idea in greater detail on the latest episode of 1st and 10 on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
So, if Armstrong received the full workload of a starting defensive end, his pass-rushing numbers would look solid. In fact, Burns was only voted into the Pro Bowl because of what he did in the pass rush, and Armstrong likely would've exceeded those numbers if he saw 840 snaps. He is arguably the second-best pass rusher on the team behind Micah Parsons.
But the cherry on top is what he does against the run. The Dallas Cowboys had 16 edge defenders, defensive tackles, or linebackers play more than 10 snaps against the run. Armstrong only finished behind Lawrence by his PFF run defensive grade. You read that right; Armstrong had a better grade than Parsons (3rd), Leighton Vander Esch (4th), and Randy Gregory (12th).
Fowler was actually solid against the run last year and would have ranked third on the Cowboys roster last season. But Armstrong is an underrated weapon against the run. His 5.9% missed tackle rate was roughly 10 percentage points below the average. And of the 83 ED in the NFL who finished with a sub-10% missed tackle rate, Armstrong had the ninth most tackles. This means he does not only excel against the run, but he will consistently make an impact on the field.
If given the opportunity, Armstrong can anchor the right defensive end spot similar to how Dallas used Randy Gregory when he was healthy. And Armstrong provides a skillset in the run defense that was absent when Gregory was on the field.
This is not an attempt to disparage Fowler or Williams. Both will likely be pivotal contributors at certain points this season, and it will be interesting to see how Williams develops. However, do not expect these two defensive ends to be 1a and 1b at the right edge position. That title now belongs to Dorance Armstrong and he will be the breakout defensive player in 2022.