An already stout defensive line in Dallas stands to get even better if the Cowboys make the right call in the 2023 NFL Draft, and they're not lacking for high-ceiling options in their quest
FRISCO, Texas — You can't keep everyone in free agency, but the Dallas Cowboys came damn close to achieving that elusive mission in 2023. Their re-signings included both Jonathan Hankins and Dante Fowler, two impact players on the defensive line, but they were forced to wave goodbye to Carlos Watkins — an underrated player who took his talents to the Arizona Cardinals.
The loss of Watkins doesn't put them in dire straits, however, though it does open up opportunities for younger players to step in and step up; and that will likely include a new addition or two when this year's NFL Draft gets underway in Kansas City.
Can one of the best defensive lines in the NFL get better?
Note: I will not include any linebacker prospects below as there will be a separate piece for them. This will focus solely on those classified as defensive ends or interior linemen.
EDGE — DeMarcus Lawrence was not only, again, one of the best run defenders in the NFL last season but he reminded everyone just how dangerous he still is as a pass rusher as well. That combined with Micah Parsons' ability to level up in Year 2 (he was essentially a defensive end in 2022, not a linebacker) and he wasn't the only one, because Dorance Armstrong's career-best season affirmed why the Cowboys awarded him a second deal.
Those three players lead one of the best pass rush departments in the league, and one that might get even better with the readdition of Dante Fowler in free agency and Sam Williams looking to wreak havoc in his second NFL season — time also waiting to tell if former first-round pick Takk McKinley will rediscover himself in his reunion with Dan Quinn (as Fowler did).
Defensive tackle (iDL) — The addition of Jonathan Hankins via trade in 2022 was precisely what the doctor ordered as it relates to bolstering the ailing run defense, so re-signing him became a top priority. With that bit of business now taken care of, the Cowboys can at least exhale a bit, knowing they have their definitive run-stopping nose tackle; but it can't all fall on the hefty shoulders of Hankins.
A breakout season by Osa Odighizuwa sets the tone for Neville Gallimore and Chauncey Golston to follow suit, as well as Quinton Bohanna, the latter being drafted to become what Hankins already is. And with Hankins on just a one-year deal, the onus is on Bohanna to take the next step forward and in what will likely be a competition with a potential 2023 draft pick (and we'll see how quickly Isaac Alarcon can make the transition from iOL to iDL in training camp).
Top 2023 Prospects:
- Jalen Carter, iDL, Georgia — Entering this offseason, there was a consensus that the Cowboys wouldn't have a chance in Hell of drafting Carter, but off-the-field issues have since cropped up and that leaves many to wonder if he'll fall in the first round, and just how far that might be. Considering he's still by and far the best defensive lineman on the board (and it's not even close), should the former Bulldog find himself anywhere near the 26th-overall pick, Dallas would be obligated to put out some feelers to potentially move up and grab him. What he would be for Quinn's defense, and in conjunction with Hankins in 2023, would be flat-out unfair to opposing offenses.
- Mazi Smith, iDL, Michigan — Carter aside, you have to love what Mazi Smith brings to the table. If you hold up a comparison of what the Cowboys need at defensive tackle next to a list of what Smith already is, you'd discover just how perfectly the piece fits into the puzzle. For not only is he a lane hog who devours double and even triple teams at times, but he displays an unusual quickness for his size and there is enough power in his lower band and explosiveness in his hands to make any would-be blocker reconsider their career choice. Oh, and he knows how to take the ball away as well, if you needed any more of a reason to justify why he was an Official 30 visit in Dallas.
- Jaquelin Roy, iDL, LSU — Speaking of Official 30 visits, Roy found himself at The Star in Frisco as a part of this year's group, and it's not difficult to ascertain why. The former Tiger was one part of what became an unexpectedly potent defense in the bayou, standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 305 pounds on a frame that can clearly carry more if he should need to toss back a couple more patty melts at the request of Quinn. Roy is versatile enough to move between 1-tech and 3-tech and his film does not disappoint, but his NFL Combine measurables and lack of experience will take him out of the running as a premium pick and that might be perfectly fine, because he might be a tremendous value on Day 3.
- Myles Murphy, DE, Clemson — And now to the edge rushers, bringing me to Murphy, a stout prospect indeed. Unlike Roy and many others, Murphy is expected to be a first-round pick; though it's impossible to know at what number. He's decorated, savvy and instinctual with quick twitch ability for days and a motor that seemingly won't quit once it gets going. His hands aren't the largest, but his wingspan is more than sufficient to disengage blocks and, by the way, he ran a 4.53s 40-yard dash, so good luck to any running back who thinks he's getting away in the open field. That makes him as dangerous in run defense as he is at getting after quarterbacks, including the QBs who aren't statues (e.g., Jalen Hurts).
- B.J. Ojulari, DE, LSU — You've heard this last name before, and recently. That's thanks to the New York Giants, who employ Azeez Ojulari after selecting him in the second round of last year's draft out of Georgia. One year later, here comes his brother, B.J. Ojulari, from the land of the rival LSU Tigers. There's obviously a pedigree here of pass rush prowess, and there's an argument to be made that, while older brother Azeez will undoubtedly be a problem for NFL offenses for some time to come, younger brother B.J. bests him in certain ways. Will the Ojulari name be called again in the second round of the draft? He's not one the Cowboys can ignore when Day 2 kicks off.
- Will McDonald IV, DE, Iowa State — McDonald was an Official 30 visit for the Cowboys as well, proof they're not content with the waves of pass rushers they already have. He's lacking in neither ability nor experience, and the word that kept popping up in my head as I watched his film was "maniac". He is truly different when he sets his eyes on a quarterback, and not much can stop him from getting to his prey; giving off very real "Sam Williams vibes" in that regard. My biggest knock to McDonald is he'll often sacrifice his run defense in the same way a bull sees nothing but the matador's taunts, and he'll need to get better at gearing down to halt the run, something he could learn from DeMarcus Lawrence if he gets the call in what should be a second-round look.
- Felix Anudke-Uzomah (DE, Kansas State), Tyler Lacy (DE, Oklahoma State)
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