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Open Market: Cowboys can go 'all in' on interior DL


(Note: The content provided is based on opinions and/or perspective of the editorial staff and not the Cowboys football staff or organization.)

FRISCO, TX — For years now, the Dallas Cowboys' defense has mostly struggled to stop the run, though that changed a bit with the addition of Johnathan Hankins in 2022. Things are changing on that side of the ball this offseason though, including bringing in Mike Zimmer as defensive coordinator to replace Dan Quinn.

What does this mean from a personnel standpoint?

That will be determined here soon, but if history is any indicator of how Zimmer wants to build his defense, he's likely already beginning to build a case for why the interior of the defensive line in Dallas needs work. With NFL free agency on the horizon and some whales expected to swim in it, let's talk about some players Zimmer would probably do a backflip over.

FYI: *Be sure to check out the entire ‘What’s Next?*' series as a primer to this one.

What's Here:

Jonathan Hankins: You've now seen what the Cowboys' run defense looks like with and without Hankins, so any thoughts on trying to re-sign him make a lot of sense for Dallas. Since joining the club via trade in October 2022, the veteran, big-bodied nose tackle has reminded the Cowboys of what it means to have an interior defensive lineman eating up double teams and being a brick wall that halts running backs in their tracks; and he's ultimately the reason they decided to use a first-round pick on Mazi Smith (more on that in a moment).

He was mostly resurgent in 2023 as well, even going so far as to have a two-sack outing that showed he can generate pressure on quarterbacks as well. Hankins wants to remain in Dallas for a third go, and has been very vocal about it as well; and at 31 years old, he's got a healthy amount of tread left on those monster truck tires.

Neville Gallimore: Coming out of a contract year is Gallimore, who showed great promise as a rookie third-round pick in 2020 before suffering a devastating elbow injury in 2021, one that he struggled to climb back from in 2022. Having admittedly battled with the recovery mentally as well, as in not playing the game the way he was prior to the injury, he'd finally get back to being himself in 2023; and that led to a nod on the final roster in August and another strong season that rivaled his first.

Set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, it'll be up to Mike Zimmer to determine Gallimore's fate in Dallas, though the former third-round pick has certainly done enough to stick around as a rotational interior lineman on what should be a reasonably negotiated deal.

Osa Odighizuwa: Say everything positive that you can think of about Odighizuwa and you will still have not said enough positive things about Odighizuwa. All he does is continue to level up year over year, not waiting until the usual third year of a lineman's NFL career before figuring out how to completely dominate at the professional level.

The former third-round pick (2021) had a couple sacks from the interior as a rookie, and has doubled that production since while also having a career-best season in 2023 in most major categories — proving himself a game-wrecker at times. Quiet as it's kept, however, he's entering a contract year in 2024, however, so keep that in mind going into next offseason.

Chauncey Golston: Along with Odighizuwa in entering a contract year will be Golston, a solid rotational talent who has progressed steadily and evenly in his first few seasons. Like Gallimore, he's a former third-round pick — selected one year after Gallimore — looked to be a versatile interior lineman who can play in more than one position. For Golston, at times, that's included rushing off of the edge a time or two.

But, unlike Gallimore, Golston is also a major special teams contributor and that matters as an incoming defensive coordinator evaluates him on one end with the incumbent special teams coordinator lobbying for him on the other. Ultimately, what Golston can do on all fronts in the final year of his rookie deal will draw a clearer picture of how his future might unfold beyond 2024.

Mazi Smith: Fix this situation, Zimmer. When Smith was drafted out of Michigan with a first-round pick in 2023, he was a behemoth of a man that also owned enough power in his arms to choke the life out of Thanos. He's since been tasked by the Dan Quinn administration with shedding weight, a lot of it, and though his power remains, he's not currently built to be anyone's nose tackle at the NFL level.

The Cowboys were adamant following the pick that they wanted to also unleash Smith's pass rush ability, and while we all took those comments in stride, no one thought they'd attempt to mold their future nose tackle (1-tech) into a 3-tech, and with Hankins still on a short-term deal, no less. My hope is Zimmer retains Hankins and/or adds another free agent at 1-tech and then drops Smith off at the nearest buffet with one of Jerry Jones' credit cards to ensure he gets back to big-boy status.

And hasten his get-off while you're at it, Zim.

What's Out There:

Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 13, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.

Chris Jones: Yes, yes and more yes. Did I mention yes? Because yes. Jones is easily the most coveted interior defensive lineman on the open market this offseason, presuming the Chiefs don't hit the 29-year-old with [another] franchise tag, but it's expected they won't. If they don't, the Cowboys and Zimmer better be standing on Jones' front door with roses, chocolates and a checkbook as early as March 11, when legal tampering can begin, to try and add the three-time Super Bowl champion, five-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro to the defensive line.

Jones is nasty, violent, experienced and, right now, still in his 20s, but has already racked up an eye-popping 75.5 career sacks (26 combined in the last two seasons alone), is literally one of the best to ever do it and he can do it from the inside, the outside or, hell, from the parking lot.

But if you want Jones, and you do, break out the BIG purse.

Jones + Parsons + Odighizuwa + Lawrence??

That sound you hear is me clutching my pearls, and opposing quarterbacks filing charges.

Christian Wilkins: On the less expensive, but also less heralded side, of the coin is Wilkins, whom I'm a big fan of. The 28-year-old doesn't have the resume of Jones, but it's not one to shake a stick at, though. Coming off of a career-best season wherein he'd deliver nine sacks for the Dolphins, along with a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, the former 13th-overall pick has definitely made waves since going ashore in Miami.

His fifth-year option has now ended, and he's looking for a sizable contract for his work, and I feel that if you're considering Jones at all, that means you have the money and wherewithal to consider Wilkins as well, in the event you don't land the former — especially given what he can do as a run defender as well.

Leonard Williams: As we continue to slide down the money scale here, we land at another worthy candidate, and one the Cowboys know well from his time spent trying to stop Dallas as a contractor for the New York Giants. A former first-round pick himself (sixth-overall in 2015), Williams has since been traded to the Seattle Seahawks after two bouts with the franchise tag.

One of the best run defenders entering this year's free agency pool, bringing Williams back to the familiar confines of the NFC East might be tantalizing for him, especially since that means he'd also get to face off against the Giants at least twice a season.

Justin Madubuike: I can't figure out, for the life of me, why more people aren't talking about what Madubuike brings to the table this spring. It's possible he's being overshadowed by a linebackers unit that is intergalactic in Baltimore, and I suppose that's fair, but don't be misled into believing the Ravens don't have horses up front — Madubuike having one of the biggest feedbags in the stable.

Want him to defend the run? No problem, he can excel at it. Want him to rush the passer? Well, how does 13 sacks in 2023 sound to you?? So it's as I said, I can't figure out the silence surrounding him, but maybe that keeps the price down a bit, so shhhhhh….

D.J. Reader: I'm a bit torn on Reader, but not to the point wherein he'd escape this list of candidates for the Cowboys. My issue is his bout with injury as of late, because the last thing the Cowboys can afford to deal with is losing another key defender for a stretch of time. That said, it's not as if Reader is missing entire seasons due to injury, and he's proven to be four handfuls when he's been on the field for the Bengals.

Notice I said four handfuls, because if you think he can be moved by only one human being in the trenches, you're fatally wrong. But as he recovers from a torn quad suffered in 2023, you'd have to wonder if he'd be ready for training camp and how long the 29-year-old would require before getting back to top form.

He's in the perfect position for a prove-it deal to rebuild his brand and try to hit the market again in 2025, and that's entirely fine with me in a scenario such as his: not overcommitting, while still committing.

Honorable mention: Calais Campbell, Grover Stewart, Sheldon Rankins, Teair Tart, DaQuan Jones, Maurice Hurst, Quinton Jefferson, Javon Kinlaw, Shelby Harris, Fletcher Cox -

Campbell simply doesn't age and, as such, will always have a place on this roster if I were making those decisions. There are other worthy names here as well, though with varying degrees of risk and production, and while I don't believe Cox would ever leave Philly to join Dallas … wait … didn't Jason Peters? And didn't Peters save the day on an occasion or two for the Cowboys??


The bottom line here is this: with the Cowboys needing to double down on their interior defensive line — something Zimmer will likely also pound the table for, given how his defenses in the past have been constructed — walking away from this year's robust pool of talent with empty hands would be the antithesis of being "all in".

So, take your pick and then pick up the phone.

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