Cowboys may hit FA market to improve DT position. Here’s who is available

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Asa Henry
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For whatever reason, the Dallas Cowboys management has avoided investing substantial capital into the safety and defensive tackle positions over the last decade-plus. A year ago Dallas attempted to bandage their defensive interior issues with short-term contracts to veterans like Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy, but for different reasons neither player was able to positively contribute on the field for the Cowboys.

The Cowboys were left with young, unproven, mid-round draft picks, or undrafted free agents to hold down the middle of their defense, and the results were, as previously mentioned, unacceptable.

The Dallas defense was toward the bottom of the league in many metrics in 2020, but against the run is where they were really exposed. The Cowboys gave up 2,541 rushing yards this year, which equates to a staggering 158.8 per game, second-worst in NFL ahead of only Houston. The yards are nearly 1,000 more than Dallas has given up in any season over the last five years.

While Dallas’ end of season pass-rush numbers were adequate, it wasn’t because of the defensive tackles. The interior of the defensive line was never able to consistently generate a rush up the middle, and Cowboys tackles were only credited for 1.5 sacks in 2020 (Woods with 1.0, Gallimore with 0.5).

Obviously there are many contributing factors to the Cowboys poor defensive year, but improving the middle of the defensive line would also immediately make the jobs of the other nine defenders much easier.

Dallas will have to be extremely cap conscience with every signing they make this offseason. The Cowboys current cap situation, combined with their usual reluctance to sign high-profile free agents makes many of the names on this list seem like a pipe dream for Cowboys fans. However, if Dallas does choose to seriously address their defensive tackle needs, the following list contains potential players the Cowboys could consider.

The first five DT’s listed were pulled, in order, from PFF’s top 100 free agent rankings that were released earlier this year.

Leonard Williams

Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports Williams is coming off a career year with the Giants, racking up double-digit sacks to go with his usual stopping ability versus the run. Williams will likely command upwards of $20 million annually, making Dallas an extremely unlikely landing spot, even if he is the perfect fit for the Cowboys.

From PFF: "One of the surest bets in the class, Williams has graded between 70.0 and 82.0 in all six years of his career. Run defense is his calling card, as he ranks in the 86th percentile in PFF run-defense grade since entering the league and with his best work coming as a B and C gap defender. Williams is an average pass-rusher and even with a career-high 13 sacks this season, he’s yet to break a 72.0 pass-rush grade for his career. Still, Williams has been one of the most valuable interior defensive linemen in the league since 2015, and his level of consistency is a plus for potential suitors."

Age at start of 2021 season: 27 PFF free agent rank: 19

Dalvin Tomlinson

Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports Tomlinson's ability as a run stuffer is something Dallas could greatly use, and his lack of a pass rush will make him more affordable than Williams, but it's possible Tomlinson is still a tad too pricey for Dallas to be interested.

From PFF: "Tomlinson has a distinct profile as an above-average run defender and a below-average pass-rusher. He ranks in the 82nd percentile in PFF run-defense grade since 2017, and he knows how to finish plays — generating one of the best run-stop percentages in the league. As a pass-rusher, Tomlinson has only graded above 62.3 once — 74.7 this past season. He can play all over the defensive interior and represents one of the best run-stopping nose tackles in this class."

Age at start of 2021 season: 27 PFF free agent rank: 39

Shelby Harris

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Harris' size at 6-foot-2 and 290 pounds means he's much more suited at 3-technique defensive tackle as compared to the names above that can also play the 1-technique. Harris still possesses great ability in stopping the run and the pass, and would be a solid option should Dallas want to pay up for an interior defensive lineman.

From PFF: "One of the most underrated players in the league, Harris has been an above-average player since starting to see significant playing time in 2017. The former seventh-rounder wins with good pad level and quickness in the running game and ranks in the top third of the league in run-stop percentage since 2018. Harris has also been one of the league’s best pass-rushers since 201,8 with the only reservations being that he has only two seasons with more than 500 snaps (636 in 2019, 516 in 2017)."

Age at start of 2021 season: 29 PFF free agent rank: 46

Ndamukong Suh

Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports Despite his age, 34, Suh has been steady contributor this year on one of the best defensive fronts in football, the Buccaneers. There is a chance that Suh takes a semi-affordable one-year deal similar to how the Cowboys signed Gerald McCoy a year ago.

From PFF: "Suh certainly isn’t the force he once was, but he is still able to maintain an absurd workload for as many snaps as he’s logged over his NFL career.

The 788 snaps he played this season was the lowest total of his career, yet it was still the 11th-most among all interior defenders. Suh racked up 50 total pressures and 25 defensive stops and can still be a very solid member of a defensive line. At this point, he is a mercenary for hire on a short-term contract. If a team has a problem spot up front, Suh can fix it."

Age at start of 2021 season: 34 PFF free agent rank: 98

Sheldon Rankins

Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports A few years ago Rankins might have been higher on this list, making him an even more unrealistic get for Dallas. However, injuries have hampered his production over these last two seasons, making him a potentially risky signing.

From PFF: "Injuries have become an issue for Rankins, but he hits free agency at 27 years old with some high-level play on his resume, albeit all the way back in 2018. That year was Rankins’ best season, seeing him post a PFF grade of at least 67.0 in every facet of play. Outside of that, he has been a plus run defender who has struggled to offer much as a pass-rusher.

Over the past two seasons combined, Rankins has generated just 43 total pressures on 738 snaps, including the playoffs. He exceeded that total in 2018 on fewer snaps. Teams will have to determine which player they are signing."

Age at start of 2021 season: 27 PFF free agent rank: 99

Other names to consider

Only five defensive tackles made PFF's top 100 free agents list, but there still many more talented players that the Cowboys should consider adding, or bringing back, to help out their defensive line unit. The following players are expected to be more affordable options for the Cowboys than the names mentioned above.

Player

Age next season

Last team

UFA or RFA

Antwaun Woods

28

Dallas

RFA

D.J. Jones

26

San Francisco

UFA

Johnathan Hankins

29

Las Vegas

UFA

Larry Ogunjobi

27

Cleveland

UFA

Poona Ford

25

Seattle

RFA