The Dallas Cowboys had a defensive problem in 2019. It wasn’t necessarily that they had issues with their defensive ends, but they did have issues with their pass rush as a whole. In 2019, the Cowboys trotted out Demarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn, who both ranked in the top-5 of pass rush win rate. However, they also both ranked high in double team rate, and the pass rush as a whole never quite looked totally in sync, ranking just 18th in sack percentage and 19th in sacks-per-game. However, they lacked depth. But with more names added to the fold, the Cowboys pass rushers in 2020 should be improved.
The entrenched contributors
Lawrence is one of the most technically proficient and versatile pass rushers in the entire league. His sack numbers didn’t carry over in 2019, dropping for the second year in a row, which made some fans upset after Lawrence had just signed a new contract. However, Lawrence is one of the best run defenders at the position, and right tackles have to be cognizant of a litany of rush moves, including an incredible Euro step that he supplements with a cross chop. The hope under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is that more blitzing will open up more 1v1 opportunities for Lawrence, and he’ll be able to cash in more with better opportunities.
The big Canadian was the butt of “overpaid” jokes for a long time, but his contributions to the team on and off the field were sorely missed in 2020 when he missed most of the season with a hip injury that required surgery. Crawford is the perfect fit for a hybrid defense, as he’s played both on the edge and on the interior in the more traditional four-down-lineman setup the Cowboys have deployed in recent years. Expect Crawford to play his traditional RDE spot, head up on the tackle as a 5-technique in odd fronts, and a little bit of 3-technique on obvious pass rush downs.
The potential second wave
Smith’s off-field troubles are well documented, and it’s difficult to imagine his substance abuse issues didn’t end up hindering his play as a young pass rusher. We all saw what he was able to do early in his career, racking up a 19.5 sack season in his second season after 14 as a rookie outside linebacker. Smith has now reportedly bumped his weight from 255 pounds to about 280, which probably will preclude him from manning his old stand up outside linebacker role. However, if he can play as another outside-in player like Crawford, the Cowboys could attack in a multitude of ways on obvious passing downs.
We aren’t giving up hope on Armstrong yet. Although he hasn’t produced at a high rate yet in his NFL career with just 2.5 sacks in total in his first two seasons, he’ll be just 23-years-old during the 2020 season and possesses the length and lateral mobility to be a force as a pass rusher. He’s not particularly explosive as an athlete, which could hurt his case for playing time if the Cowboys do go with stand up rushers that can also drop into coverage.
The issue with that train of thought is that the current roster doesn’t have that pure stand up outside linebacker, and Armstrong could be the best candidate, even if it’s not an ideal fit. If he can become more technically proficient and use that elite length he possesses, we could see the player we did as a sophomore at Kansas that excited many.
Arguably one of the steals in the entire draft class. There was a near collective head tilt by most media talent evaluators still seeing his name available deep into the fifth round, as many had him as a top-100 talent. The Utah left defensive end fell because he is a little undersized, has stubby arms, and he won’t beat most quarterbacks in a 40-yard foot race. But all he did at Utah was become their all-time leader in sacks while making a fool out of left tackles consistently despite his poor physical attributes.
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Anae’s hands are advanced well beyond his years, and it allows him to capture the edge and win on the outside shoulder of the tackle. He also possesses a fine inside spin that he counters with alongside a nice speed-to-power rush that he supplements with a strong right armed club to drop the tackle’s hands. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Anae becomes the fourth pass rusher on the team, and if Smith doesn’t end up panning out (he hasn’t played in FIVE years), he could even be the number three.
The battle for the sixth spot
Joe Jackson vs. Ron’Dell Carter
Jackson made the roster in 2019 but ended up playing just 71 defensive snaps during his rookie season. Carter transferred from Rutgers to James Madison after two seasons to play college football with his brother Robert Carter Jr. While at JMU he tallied 23 sacks, including 12 during his final campaign along with 27 tackles for loss on his way to a consensus First-Team All-American bid in the FCS.
If the Cowboys decide to go with size for their sixth edge defender (if they keep six) it’ll be interesting to see whether the new regime values the 5th-round asset the former staff spent on Jackson over Carter, who was the recipient of the most guaranteed money of the 2020 undrafted free agents.
Jackson is a high energy player that lacks the nuance of an adequate pass rusher. He’s a nice candidate to set a strong edge against the run, and he has the strength to play inside as well, but far too often as a rusher, he’ll rely on an outside rush trying to win with explosiveness and flexibility he simply doesn’t have.
Tape on James Madison is admittedly hard to find, but in the few games viewed of Carter, he demonstrated he was dominant playing against FCS competition, continuously beating tackles inside and outside with strong hands and some surprising lateral mobility for a 270-pound defensive end. However, with the lack of preseason and a condensed training camp, it might be difficult to prove he belongs on a roster in the NFL, so a trip to the practice squad might be in his future.
Randy Gregory vs. Jalen Jelks
If the Cowboys decide to keep two stand-up rushers with the sixth spot, these are the two that will fight that battle. Ultimately, it is not much of a battle when you simply look at the talent. The issue is there is still no word on Gregory’s reinstatement, and the clock is quickly ticking closer and closer to zero.
Gregory is the perfect complement to Lawrence on obvious passing downs, as he possesses great explosiveness and some unreal flexibility that consistently threatens the outside shoulder of offensive tackles. A combination of Gregory, Smith, McCoy, and Lawrence rushing the passer on third down could be terrifying for offensive lines, especially if the Cowboys also deploy Jaylon Smith as a blitzer more often in 2020.
Jelks is similarly framed as Armstrong, both possessing outstanding length with middling burst and overall athleticism for an edge rusher. Jelks had some hype going into his final season at Oregon, but he never really put it all together as a pass rusher, and he ended up a seventh-round pick because of it. He probably has the longest road of the four possibilities, but if the Cowboys are set on having another stand up outside linebacker, he could end up on the 53-man roster.
Have a take, which one makes the team?
If Gregory somehow gets reinstated, he will be the sixth edge rusher on the 53-man roster. There shouldn’t be any dissenting views on that. However, if he doesn’t, then it makes sense to go out on a limb and say there is a reason the front office gave the money they did to Carter. He’s a bubbly personality that should be a good presence in the locker room, and his addition as the sixth rusher could mean keeping only four interior defenders because he potentially has that outside-in flexibility. Additionally, keeping hold of Carter could be a move not just for this year, but the future, as Crawford’s contract expires after 2020.