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Ranking the top-10 free agent DTs who fit the Cowboys needs in 2024

The Cowboys have a handful of needs they need to address over the 2024 offseason but perhaps none more urgent than that of the defensive tackle position. The Dallas defense was routinely manhandled inside in 2023 and struggled to keep blockers from reaching the second level and overpowering their already undersized LB corps.

Bigger LBs will help the Cowboys run defense in 2024 but if the interior linemen can’t do more to keep them free of blockers, size will only help them so much. Since LB performance is directly linked to the DT play in front of them (much like RB success is dependent on run blocking), fixing the DT has to be the highest defensive priority over the offseason.

The Cowboys are expected to re-sign internal free agent Johnathan Hankins, but that won’t be enough. Hankins was good as a rotational player but his value in Cowboys’ circles tends to be a bit inflated. Dallas needs a clear upgrade inside and while they remain optimistic about Mazi Smith’s future, they can’t bank on him to be any more than a rotational player himself in Year 2.

Unlike previous top-10 free agent lists like RB and WR, DT is a position the Cowboys need to address primarily through free agency. They need a game-ready starter if they want to improve in 2024 and can’t wait for a rookie to develop.

Not just as a run stopper but interior pressure player. Once again this season, the Cowboys overworked Osa Odighizuwa, and once again this season, he appeared to fade down the stretch. Adding a pass rush presence inside will help Dallas get more from him when games matter most.

The Cowboys could go a number of directions in free agency but based on the Cowboys’ needs and the options available, here are the 10 best fits.

No. 10: Carlos Watkins, 30

This familiar face doesn’t upgrade the starting ranks but he’s versatile, able to play across the line in either 1-gap or 2-gap capacity, and an upgrade over Neville Gallimore, who’s likely to leave in free agency.

Watkins is a hard worker who the Cowboys know well. The familiarity makes him low risk, and his rotational standing in the NFL means he’ll also be low cost. This is the kind of signing that can be coupled with a second DT signing.

No. 9: Linval Joseph, 35

(Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)
(Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Keeping with a familiar face at bargain price theme, is former Vikings DT, Linval Joseph. Joseph’s best seasons came under Zimmer in Minnesota. Recent play by Joseph has been poor but if anyone can get the most from him, it’s probably his old head coach.

At 6-foot-4, 324-pounds, he’s a big body who can hold up in a rotation. At this point, he may have nothing in the tank, but the benefits are intriguing and the connection to the Cowboys new defensive coordinator is hard to overlook.

No. 8: Josh Tupou, 29

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Tupou isn’t the sexiest option in free agency but at 6-foot-3, 340-pounds, he offers some of the most interior girth available this year. The 2017 undrafted free agent is a 0-1-tech who can 2-gap and be that trashcan full of dirt in the middle. He’s a player who forces plays outside and clogs up short yardage situations.

Tupou doesn’t offer much in pass rush and rarely even makes tackles himself, but he works hard and facilitates in the same way Hankins does inside. He could be a good cheap rotational piece for the Cowboys.

No. 7: Maurice Hurst

(Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
(Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

As many draftniks will remember, Hurst was once considered a first-round talent. The Michigan DT had rare explosiveness from the interior that made him a valuable commodity in the NFL. But a rare heart condition revealed in the moments leading up to the draft resulted in a free fall as many teams removed him from their boards.

Hurts eventually landed in Oakland, going 140th overall.  Since then, he’s played in 55 games, contributing 9.5 sacks and surprisingly two interceptions. He’s not the weekly starter he was once projected to be, but he’s consistently graded as a highly efficient player in both phases of the game.

Hurst’s 2023 season graded as the best of his career by PFF. With the 13th highest film grade in the NFL, he’s someone who could immediately come in and work in an even-split rotation with Odighizuwa at 3-tech. Part-time status and lingering medical concerns will keep the price lower, making Hurst one of the bigger bargains in free agency.

No. 6: Grover Stewart, 30

Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports
Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Stewart isn’t a household name but with 107 career games under his belt maybe he should be. The five-year starter for the Colts graded 22nd in the NFL last season. Primarily a run defender, Stewart stands 6-foot-4, 314-pounds.

If the Cowboys want to upgrade their short yardage run defense while giving Odighizuwa a break in a rotation, Stewart could help.

No. 5: Shelby Harris, 32

Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

At 32-years-old, Harris is no spring chicken but the 6-foot-3, 300-pound DT is still playing high-level ball and would be an asset on the Cowboys interior.

Most recently anchoring the middle of the Cleveland line (arguably the best defense in 2023) Harris played 438 defensive snaps, deflected five passes and gathered seven tackles for loss.

Harris only had nine pressures in 2023 but he also only logged one missed tackle. He’s a steady player who may not be glamourous but certainly is useful. He’s also likely to be pretty affordable.

No. 4: Christian Wilkins, 28

Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Wilkins, 6-foot-4, 310-pounds has been one of the better NFL DTs in recent seasons. Over the last three years PFF graded him in the top-10 twice. At 28 Wilkins is in the prime of his career and will likely cost a pretty penny to add. But he’s a well-rounded talent would instantly upgrade the starting ranks in Dallas.

With nine sacks in 2023, Wilkins is coming off a career year. He’s also proved to be a bit of an iron man playing in all 17 games in each of the last three seasons.

No. 3: Leonard Williams, 29

Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Williams is about as consistent of a performer there is in the NFL. The 6-foot-5, 302-pound DT from Seattle has graded inside the top-25 in each of the last three seasons. More pass-rusher than run stopper, Williams is still an every-down player without any clear deficiencies in his game.

In a strong free agent class, Williams likely won’t break the bank but he’s not going to be cheap either. Getting a steady DT under 30 is tough to do so Williams will likely command a significant multiyear deal but won’t push the market.

No. 2: D.J. Reader, 29

Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

At 6-foot-3, 335 pounds, Reader is a mammoth of a man capable of upgrading both phases of the game all from the 1-tech position. Adding Reader would bump Hankins to a more appropriately suited rotational role (assuming Hankins is re-signed) and make things easier on all the box players behind him.

Since 2019, Reader has ranked in the top-10 three times. He’s coming off a season in which he had 30 tackles for loss, playing over 500 snaps.

Reader has been a consistent performer since entering the NFL in 2016 and won’t come cheap. But he’s an instant upgrade in Dallas and will lift up the entire defense even if he isn’t a major pass rush threat.

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No. 1: Chris Jones, 29

(AP Foto/Ed Zurga)
(AP Foto/Ed Zurga)

Leader? Check. Immense talent? Check. Consistent success? Check. Under 30? Check. Chris Jones checks all the boxes and then some. The best DT in the class stands to set the market at DT. Graded in PFF’s top-5 this season, many believe Jones has surpassed the great Aaron Donald in positional hierarchy.

Fresh off a Super Bowl win, Jones says he wants to stay in Kansas City and the Chiefs are likely to throw him big money to make it happen. But a lot can change between now and payday and a bigger offer could pull him away.

If the Cowboys are serious about fixing their interior and going “all in” this season with their star-studded roster, this is the move to make.

The NFL draft is a great way to upgrade and fix a lot of areas of the Cowboys roster but DT isn’t one of them. This is by far the most significant improvement Dallas can make to their defense this offseason and would pay dividends to every corner of Zimmer’s unit.

Alternate No. 1 choice: Justin Madubuike

Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

All indications are Chris Jones and the Chiefs will come to an agreement that keeps the best player on that championship defense in Kansas City. So to avoid an anticlimactic finale to this list, an alternative No. 1 option is order.

Madubike, the Ravens star DT, hits free agency at the perfect time. The 27-year interior player is coming off his best season as a pro. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the second-best DT entering free agency this offseason (just behind Jones) and sixth best free agent overall.

Madubuilke was a well-rounded interior player, standing strong against the run and producing an 11.2% pass rush win rate in the process. He has elite burst off the snap, consistent production week-to-week, and technical skills to indicate it’s no fluke. Just entering his physical prime, it appears the best is yet to come and that should make him extremely attractive to the Cowboys.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire