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DE: How Deep Is The Defensive End Position?
The Cowboys lost a key pass-rusher in free agency, but still have DeMarcus Lawrence, who is looking to return to Pro Bowl form. The question now, is who will play on the opposite side of him.
By Jonny Auping Jun 19, 2020

With the NFL Draft completed and free agency at least slowing down here as the summer approaches, it's time to take a closer look at each position. Each day, we will dissect a different aspect of each position, ranging from position battles to under-the-radar players to simply answering questions that have yet to be resolved.

Today, we'll continue the series with the defensive end position.

Need to Figure Out

How Deep Is The Defensive End Position?

Need To Figure Out:

We don't even know whether the Cowboys will play a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense this season, but as far as projecting the defensive end position, it may not even matter. The only thing we really know is that DeMarcus Lawrence will be expected to produce. We don't know who will be starting opposite him at the right defensive end spot.

The question of who is starting is important, but when the field is so large and wide open, it may prove to be that the most important question is how many of those potential starters are likely contributors. It would be great for the Cowboys if the competition for starter is intense, because it would mean that the team could have a deep rotation of defensive ends to play at that spot as well as give Lawrence rest when needed.

In February, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula essentially said that his defensive line rotation would be as deep as the talent dictates. "What's the drop-off?" Tomsula asked. "That's my point. That's the question I'm always asking myself. The goal is to have as many guys as you can playing and go. But if there's a drop-off, we've got problems."

There are plenty of best-case scenarios at defensive end when you look past Lawrence. Aldon Smith could recapture some of his former greatness. Bradlee Anae could become an immediate contributor as a rookie. Randy Gregory could successfully be reinstated to the NFL and pick back up where he left off. Tyrone Crawford could return from hip surgery and provide reliable starting-caliber production. Dorance Armstrong could take a step forward in his development. Undrafted free agent Ron'Dell Carter might not only make the team but see actual game snaps.

If all those things prove to be true, then the defensive end position will have essentially no noticeable drop-off, and the entire defense will benefit from it. But, realistically, the opposite of all of those things could prove to be true. Smith and Gregory might not successfully be able to shake off the disadvantage of missing full seasons of NFL action. Anae might not be ready to contribute as a rookie. Crawford might not be fully recovered from injury. We might have seen the best we'll see from Armstrong. Carter might not even make the team.

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle for these scenarios. But they're all something to keep your eyes on. How much depth the Cowboys truly have at the defensive end position is currently an unknown, and it will certainly matter over a 16-game season.

Ready to Compete

Let The Pass-Rushing Competition Begin

Ready To Compete

The left side of the defensive line is as established as any position on the roster. DeMarcus Lawrence is written into his spot on the top of the depth chart with a permanent marker. The other side might be as wide open as any on the roster. Ultimately, a battle for the starting right defensive end spot will take place, and a few weeks into training camp we may very well know who the realistic contenders could be.

Perhaps the safest prediction is that Tyrone Crawford will move away from the defensive tackle position in order to slide over as the starter at defensive end. Crawford's experience, production, and leadership make him a natural fit. He has 23 career sacks, and getting to the quarterback is likely priority number one. But Crawford is coming off season-ending hip surgery, so he'll have to prove that he's made a full recovery before he earns a starting spot.

While Crawford's pass rushing ability is enticing, Aldon Smith was an elite run stopper when he was in his prime in 2013. He was on his way to becoming one of the best defensive players of his generation before addiction issues saddled his career. But he hasn't played in the NFL in four years, and whether he can even handle the snap count of a starter, let alone revive a bit of his elite status, is a complete unknown.

Fourth-round draft pick won't be expected to start in Week 1, but the Cowboys will surely give him the opportunity to prove he is capable of the challenge in training camp. He was a consensus All-American at Utah last season with 30 career sacks. Dallas has every incentive for the future of their defensive end position to come as early as possible.

The Cowboys have held onto Randy Gregory and Dorance Armstrong for a reason, as well. If Gregory's reinstatement to the NFL is successful then he'll surely be able to state his claim as a starter. Armstrong, too, is a young rotational player who could prove that a larger opportunity could lead to a larger contribution.

Don't Forget About

Don’t Forget About These Defensive Ends

Don't Forget About…

It'd be hard to blame anyone for having forgotten about Randy Gregory. The former second-round pick has played in less games over his career than he's been suspended for. But in an ideal world, Gregory is the talented, reliable starter opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. Most people aren't naive enough to simply bank on that ideal world taking shape these days, however. Gregory has applied for reinstatement, and while that request being granted seems reasonable enough, it still has not happened deep into the offseason. If and when it does, it's not Gregory's talent that would have anyone skeptical that he could be penciled in for 5-10 sacks next year. There's simply the question of picking back up on promising potential after missing a full season, along with the questions (fair or unfair) concerning whether he can avoid off-the-field issues. 

Another name to keep in mind is Dorance Armstrong. If Gregory, Aldon Smith, and Bradlee Anae will all have to prove themselves in their own respective ways, it's worth noting that, while he certainly hasn't been a game-changer, Armstrong has been a rotational player for Dallas the past two years. The former fourth-round pick has played about 25 percent of defensive snaps since he was drafted in 2018. Perhaps that's not a sexy stat, but it's certainly not crazy to think that a 23-year-old with two years of legitimate NFL experience might make a run at a starting defensive end spot that's currently up for grabs. 

Let's not forget about a couple of rookies from last year in Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks. Jackson played sparingly throughout the year while Jelks was on IR. Both of them were late-round draft picks that have upside.

Finally, keep an eye on undrafted free agent Ron'Dell Carter out of James Madison. Head Coach Mike McCarthy is from Pittsburgh and has connections with James Madison (the Cowboys also signed quarterback Ben DiNucci out of JMU). Carter reportedly turned down 24 other NFL teams that were interested in signing him after the draft to come to Dallas. The Cowboys gave him a larger signing bonus than any other of their undrafted free agents. Carter recorded 12 sacks last season. He'll have a good shot at making the final roster, and what he can do from there is anyone's guess.

What We Know

Is Tank on Elite Level?

What We Know

For all the questions that Cowboy fans may have about the defensive end position, there's undoubtedly one name that instantly comes to mind for opposing fans: DeMarcus Lawrence. "Tank" is arguably the most talented player on the Dallas defense, and the degree to which he makes that apparent is going to go a long way in determining how much respect the defensive end position gets.

Lawrence signed a five-year extension worth $105 million a year ago, and he followed that up with a relatively disappointing season, at least for what is expected from a player on that kind of contract. He only recorded five sacks and 45 tackles last season, both lower than he had managed in the previous two seasons. On one hand, with the emergence of Robert Quinn and his 11.5 sacks last season, perhaps you could argue that the attention given to Lawrence opened things up for Quinn. But either way, with Quinn gone, that type of production is unlikely from the right defensive end spot, so Lawrence will have to generate those sacks himself this year.

It's hard to overstate how important it is that Lawrence be the most consistent player on the defense. The secondary is full of enticing potential, but it's just as riddled with question marks. Constant pressure to opposing quarterbacks can mitigate a lot of unknowns on defense. Lawrence recently told FS1, "Trust me, my sack numbers will go back up [this year.]" Lawrence is paid more than Cameron Jordan of the New Orleans Saints. If he can consistently play at Jordan's level then it could elevate the Cowboys to legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Additionally, coming off season-ending hip surgery, we don't know exactly what level of production to get from Tyrone Crawford, or even what role he'll be playing, but we do know that he will be making his return, and he'll bring a degree of leadership and professionalism that has always carried a certain amount of weight with his teammates when he's able to take the field.

What's New?

Who Replaces Robert Quinn?

What's New?

In letting Robert Quinn sign with the Chicago Bears, the Cowboys lost some veteran leadership. You could argue they lost some continuity among their starters. But what they really lost is plain and simple: production. Quinn joined the Cowboys prior to last season by way of a savvy trade with the Miami Dolphins and far surpassed expectations by leading the team with 11.5 sacks.

Replacing that production is no easy task, hence why Chicago valued Quinn enough to offer him $70 million in the first place. But it was ultimately a combination of luck and smarts that led to the Cowboys getting that kind of play out of Quinn in the first place. They'll hope to catch lightning in a bottle again through a gamble with unknown potential. There are two new additions at defensive end who could fit that bill: an enticing rookie and a formerly dominant veteran with a checkered past.

The biggest name to join the Cowboys defense this offseason was probably Aldon Smith. By his third year in 2013, Smith was on pace to have a career as dominant as JJ Watt's. But off-field troubles fueled by a battle with addiction quickly deteriorated his promising career. Smith has spent four years away from the NFL addressing his troubles and recalibrating his personal life. The Cowboys shocked the football world when they signed him, reuniting him with defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. What Smith is capable of after such a long absence is unclear, but if he is in shape and able to capture any of his former greatness then he's a viable starter.

Dallas also drafted an accomplished collegiate defensive end in the fifth round of April's draft. Bradlee Anae out of Utah has all the characteristics you'd want out of a starting edge rusher. He was a three-year starter who finished his career with 30 sacks and was a consensus All-American last season. The only question is whether he'll immediately be able to provide that kind of production in the NFL. The Cowboys will be realistic about what to expect from him early, but they'll surely give the rookie every chance to exceed expectations.

And the Cowboys also have the option of moving Tyrone Crawford, who missed most of last year with a hip injury. He's moved inside and outside his entire career, playing both end and tackle. But with the Cowboys clearly looking to go with a bigger presence inside now, Crawford is likely a better fit at end.

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