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5 free agents Dan Quinn could recruit to the Cowboys in 2023

With Dan Quinn returning to Dallas, there may be some free agents looking to make the move to Big D.

Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

On Jan. 11, 2021, it was announced the Dallas Cowboys would be hiring Dan Quinn as their defensive coordinator. Two years later, near the day he arrived, Quinn announced he would stay in Dallas for a third season.

Quinn was reportedly in the second round of interviews as a head coaching candidate for the Indianapolis Colts and the Arizona Cardinals. Of course, with him returning to the Cowboys, it will be the second year in a row that Quinn pulled himself out of head coaching opportunities.

Head coach Mike McCarthy didn’t address whether Quinn would be coming back in his final press conference of the season on Jan. 26th, but spoke about how happy he was his defensive coordinator is returning.

Players within the locker room on the defensive side of the ball probably share McCarthy’s feelings. Since coming to Dallas, Quinn has been able to get the best out of rookie classes and veteran free agents. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys in 2022 because he would be working with his old coach from Atlanta.

Being the NFL’s No. 2 total defense in DVOA in back-to-back seasons doesn’t happen by accident. Players around the league have noticed how dominant this Dallas defense has been, and with Quinn back in the mix, maybe he can bring in some others from the 2023 free-agent class. Here are a few names to monitor.

Leighton Vander Esch, LB - Dallas Cowboys

This one might be obvious, but Leighton Vander Esch was an essential piece for Dallas’ defense this season. Not only was Vander Esch healthy for the majority of the season, but it was statistically his best season since 2018, his rookie year.

Vander Esch was second on the team in tackles with 90, had four tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and one pass deflection. The Cowboys struggled to stop the run at times during the season, but No. 55 helped stabilize that by the end of the year.

The Wolf Hunter has said he enjoys playing in Dan Quinn’s scheme, and it’s no coincidence Vander Esch has performed better since Quinn arrived. If Vander Esch was thinking of leaving, not knowing the status of his coach, maybe Quinn coming back could change his mind.

Arden Key, DE - Jacksonville Jaguars

Coming into the NFL draft in 2018, Arden Key was talked about as being one of the class’s best edge rushers. Unfortunately, his stock took a turn due to off-the-field issues, and the Las Vegas Raiders picked him in the third round.

Quinn has also gotten the best out of players counted out for off-the-field issues, specifically Randy Gregory in 2021. Quinn had Gregory playing so well that he ended up signing a massive contract with the Denver Broncos.

Over the previous two seasons, Key collected 11 sacks with the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers. He has inside and outside flexibility that Quinn loves to use with his players. If Key had his best season with the 49ers and DeMeco Ryans, he could see something similar in Dallas with Quinn. If the Jaguars bring him back, it won’t matter, but Dallas could offer a contract for two years, $5.5 million, which is what they gave Tarell Basham in 2021.

Kareem Jackson, SS - Denver Broncos

First things first, the preference is for Donovan Wilson to come back instead of signing someone like Kareem Jackson. Quinn talked about how Wilson was someone he saw having a great season this year, and he wasn’t wrong. No. 6 had a career year and could command a lot of money on the open market.

If Wilson were to leave in free agency, signing a veteran player like Jackson doesn’t create a drop-off in the secondary. Age certainly plays a factor with Jackson, given he’s 34 years old, but he has proven to stay healthy playing a physical position. In 2022, Jackson started all 17 games for the Broncos and totaled 94 tackles. He was a team captain and continues to be one of the hardest-hitting players at his position.

In April of 2022, Jackson signed a one-year, $2 million deal with Denver so the Cowboys could sign him for something similar and still draft a safety in the 2023 draft. Quinn has developed Jayron Kearse into a leader on this defense, and someone like Jackson and his 13 years of experience could continue the three-headed monster in Dallas if Wilson left.

Marcus Peters, CB - Baltimore Ravens

The Cowboys do need more physicality at the corner position. Marcus Peters has all the talent in the world, but he might be one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. Peters has proven to be a ball-hawk at the cornerback position whereever he’s played because he plays with an aggressive edge. Unfortunately, that “edge” can end up with few fines from the league during the season.

After his eighth NFL season, Peters is over 30 years old and hasn’t been entirely healthy of late. He missed the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL and four games in 2022. However, his injury history could keep the price tag low if the Cowboys wanted to offer a one-year “prove it” deal of around $7-10 million.

Anthony Brown is a free agent for the Cowboys, and while his veteran presence was missed down the final stretch of the season, he hasn’t looked like the same player. Despite injuries, Peters still played 75 percent of the snaps and had one interception this season. Having Al Harris and Dan Quinn work with Peters could rejuvenate his career, and just like Jackson, signing him wouldn’t prevent the Cowboys from drafting a cornerback high.

Isaiah Buggs, DE - Detroit Lions

My “pet cat” of free agency is Isaiah Buggs. When the Detroit Lions played the Green Bay Packers in their Week 18 matchup, he was all over the field. Not only was Buggs great in run defense, but he kicked inside and played defensive tackle at a high level.

Buggs was a sixth-round draft pick in 2019 who couldn’t break through the depth chart with the Pittsburgh Steelers before finding his way to Detroit. Playing under a head coach like Dan Campbell is similar to someone like Dan Quinn. A hard-nosed coach who can motivate their players to play above expectations.

Buggs had a breakout season in 2022, playing all 17 games, 66.5 percent of the snaps, totaling 46 tackles and one sack. The Cowboys love to sign depth players that turn into quality starters, as they did with Carlos Watkins, who is also a free agent. Buggs is younger than Watkins and could thrive under Quinn as a rotational player that can defend the run well. Go back and watch the Week 18 game between the Lions and Packers and see No. 96 go to work.

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