Links to discussions for other teams:
On paper, the 2021 Cowboys looked much better than the team that made a first-round exit from the playoffs. Calling this a make-or-break season for the current coaching regime is probably very accurate. If they are not able to improve in 2022, head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff might be turning over the keys to Sean Payton and his crew in 2023.
One certain thing, the Cowboys' issues last year were not on the defensive side. This unit led the league in interceptions with 26, and total takeaways with 34. The pass rush was strong with 41 sacks, the pass defense was one of just three teams to hold opponents under a 60% completion rate, and they surrendered the seventh fewest points through the air. The run defense ranked 23rd at 4.5 yards per carry, but they were middle of the pack in rush yards and tied for the seventh fewest points allowed on the ground.
With numbers and play like that, it is understandable that the organization did not make a bunch of significant personnel changes. They used just one of their first five picks on the defensive side, and Donte Fowler, who is far from a lock, is the only free agent addition likely to have a shot at starting.
Maybe the most impressive thing about the Cowboys reaching 41 sacks last year, is that they did it largely without their best pass rusher. Demarcus Lawrence suffered a broken bone in his foot in the season opener and did not take the field again until Week 13. The good news for Dallas is that he looked great upon return, posting 16 combined tackles, 3 sacks, 2 turnovers, and 5 batted passes while averaging almost 12 fantasy points over the final six games.
At times in his career, Lawrence has looked like an elite three-down defensive end both on the field and on the stat sheet. We thought he was heading toward stardom when he had 55 combined tackles and 8 sacks in his second season (2015). Then his 2016 ended with an early injury. Lawrence was back on track in 2017 and 2018 with 81 tackles, 46 assists, 25.5 sacks, 10 takeaways, and a pair of top-ten fantasy rankings.
The last three seasons have not been so kind to Lawrence. He finished strong last year, but in 2019 and 2020, his numbers slumped in nearly every category. Some of that comes from coaching and scheme situations, some from nagging injuries, some from the lack of supporting cast, and possibly some from Lawrence himself simply not performing up to par. Entering 2022, Lawrence is healthy, the scheme is established and has been successful, and the supporting cast is as talented and deep as any he has played with in Dallas. There are no excuses and no reason to believe Lawrence will not be in the hunt for his third top ten in six years.
Whatever you might think about Jerry Jones as an owner, you have to appreciate how the man stands behind his players. The Cowboys did just that with Randy Gregory. They kept him on the team and supported him through personal struggles and suspensions, only to have Gregory take the money train to Denver. He is a good player and finished second on the team with six sacks a year ago, but in the world of football, addition by subtraction is a real thing. While he usually played well when he was on the field, there was a limit to how good Gregory could ever be. I believe the Cowboys have others on their current roster with much higher ceilings.
Many IDP experts have already anointed Donte Fowler Jr. as the starter opposite Lawrence. I am not ready to go there just yet. There is no doubt he has the potential. In 2019 the former third overall pick of the Jaguars (2015) racked up a line of 40-16-11.5 with 6 batted passes and 3 turnovers and was the fantasy game's tenth-ranked lineman. The problem is, that was a career outlier. Over his other five seasons as a pro, Fowler has an average of roughly 20-9-5 and 2 turnovers. In his defense, Fowler spent the last two seasons on a bottom-of-the-barrel Falcons team. I’m not saying he is not going to be the guy, I just need to see something before I believe.
Another reason I’m not sold on Fowler is the presence of some other good young players with the potential to step up. No one is giving Dorance Armstrong love but take a look at him. Armstrong was a fourth-round pick of the team in 2018 when he was seen as a developmental prospect. He did not play much in 2018 or 2019 but in 2020 Armstrong worked into the rotation, totaling 33 combined tackles on 367 snaps. He was not credited with a sack but had three takeaways and a pair of swatted passes.
Armstrong’s role increased last year when he saw no fewer than 27 snaps in any of the 14 games he played and even started several, including some down the stretch when Lawrence was back in action. Armstrong played 534 snaps, recording solid numbers of 24-13-5 with a fumble recovery for a score and a pair of batted passes. Adding to the intrigue, all of his production but six combined tackles came after Week 9, with at least half a sack in each of the final four games. He has improved greatly over the last two seasons, particularly as a run defender, and I believe he will be in the mix for the starting job this summer.
Dallas also has former Colts third-round pick, Tarell Basham, and their own third-rounder from last year, Chauncy Golston who saw a good deal of action as a rookie. They too could get some consideration but the real wildcard here is second-round rookie Sam Williams.
All Williams did as a senior at Ole Miss last year was rack up 57 combined tackles, 12.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, a recovery, and a score. That’ is pretty impressive on any resume but doing it against SEC competition makes it shine even brighter. The former outside linebacker only played defensive end for one season and has work to do as a run defender before he can be considered for a three-down role, but his ability to rush the passer could get him on the field early in his career.
Neither the Cowboys nor the IDP community got much from the Dallas interior line in 2021. The entire group accounted for five sacks, Osa Odighizua led the way with 34 combined tackles, and no one averaged even five points per game. There are no clear-cut starters here as we close in on training camp. Even prognosticators are all over the place on this issue. Some project Neville Gallimore to be one of them, while others will tell us he might not even make the team.
What I see is a highly competitive battle for these jobs over the summer. Gallimore, Carlos Watkins, and Trysten Hill represent the veteran contingent, but we should not forget that Dallas had four rookies make the final roster last year. Three of those guys are back for a second go of it, including Odighizua, who was a third-round pick, and sixth-rounder Quinton Bohanna. Odighizua held the starting gig for much of 2021 and played more snaps than any other Cowboys interior lineman. Granted, this probably had a lot to do with guys being in and out of the lineup with injuries, but it does not change the fact that the organization and the coaching staff remain high on him. IDP managers are not likely got get much help from this group, but if we do, it will probably come from the second-year pro.
- DE Demarcus Lawrence – Low DL2 floor with a low DL1 ceiling
- DE Dante Fowler Jr – Low floor with a DL2 ceiling
- DE Dorance Armstrong – Late round or waiver sleeper with a low DL2 ceiling
- DE Sam Williams – Dynasty special
- DE Chauncey Golston – No impact expected
- DE Tarell Basham – Marginal impact at best
- DT Trysten Hill – No impact
- DT Neville Gallimore – No impact
- DT Osa Odighizuwa – Possible DT2, but let him prove it first
- DT Carlos Watkins – Marginal impact expected
- DT John Ridgeway – Developmental fifth-round pick
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