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Open Market: Cowboys' free agency options at DE


(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 — When it comes to rushing the passer off of the edge, the name that will immediately come to mind when thinking of the Dallas Cowboys is Micah Parsons, because of course. And with contract talks looming in either 2024 or 2025, it makes sense to wonder exactly what those will look like but, until the negotiations begin there, there are other things to consider this offseason as well.

DeMarcus Lawrence is entering a contract year. Dante Fowler and Dorance Armstrong are both heading to NFL free agency unless a deal is agreed to prior to March 13. Sam Williams is showing a lot of promise but needs refinement.

And there are far too many other questions on the depth chart at EDGE for Dallas to be comfortable not attacking the position in free agency this spring. You better believe Mike Zimmer is going to want some resolution.

I have some ideas for him, though, because of course.

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

What's Here:

Dorance Armstrong: It's actually criminal just how perennially underrated Armstrong has been by a large faction of the Cowboys' fanbase, but the organization knows his value well. The former fourth-round pick was able to weather the storm of two changes at head coach, two changes at special teams coordinator and three, yes three, different defensive coordinators to become and remain one of the most impactful players on both defense and special teams.

Armstrong has produced 21 sacks over the past three seasons and many more QB pressures, along with 60 combined tackles and three fumble recoveries; and did I mention he's done this despite having only 11 starts in 47 games during that time frame?

As he negotiates a third NFL contract, at only 26 years old, and with several options (e.g., Dan Quinn in Washington, Aden Durde in Seattle), losing such a key rotational pass rusher, run stopper and special teams contributor would hurt — it being more difficult to replace a glue guy like Armstrong than many might believe.

Dante Fowler: Another impact rotational pass rusher in Dallas, Fowler isn't homegrown like Armstrong, but his addition via free agency two offseasons ago has seen him find top form in his reunion with Quinn — the former first-round pick having entered the league under Quinn in Atlanta. There's a reason I mentioned Quinn twice (three times, now) in this first paragraph, because there's a chance he wants to reunite yet again with his favorite coach as a member of the Commanders or, as mentioned with Armstrong, alongside Durde for the Seahawks.

Fowler, 29, had no starts for the Cowboys in his two-year stay but was still able to produce 10 sacks and 30 combined tackles, and his takedowns of opposing quarterbacks were almost always timely in nature; and his ability to force fumbles only raises his value on the open market as, like Armstrong, one of the better rotational pass rushers in the NFL but, unlike Armstrong, one that is also tapping the door of turning 30 years old in 2024.

The Youth Movement: It could be argued that while Fowler's impact is valuable and, as such, attempting to re-sign him feels like a no-brainer, one could also make the case that he's potentially a progress-stopper for a player like Sam Williams, who on one very vocal occasion, made it known he wants to be uncaged. He might get his wish in 2024, a former second-round pick entering the all-important third year, when defensive linemen are expected to break out if they haven't already.

Williams' potential is sky-high, both defensively and on special teams, but he'll need to find the balance between being having a high motor and turning the tides on having become a magnet for penalties — drawing flags at the most inopportune times as of late. Angling for reps behind/with Williams is Junior Fehoko, a 2023 draft pick who was active in precisely zero games as a rookie, and needs a massive push this summer to make waves in Year 2.

The same goes for Tyrus Wheat, though Wheat was at least able to go from the ranks of the undrafted to earning a spot on special teams in 12 games as a rookie in 2023. More will be asked of him going forward, and especially if Armstrong and/or Fowler pack their bags.

Micah Parsons/DeMarcus Lawrence: The definitive bookends on the Cowboys' defensive line, it's unclear how Mike Zimmer will utilize Parsons, yes, but he's currently the best pass rusher on the roster and, until further notice, will be viewed as such in complement to Lawrence. But with Lawrence entering a contract year and Parsons set to open contract talks in Dallas either this offseason or the next — his fifth-year option set to be activated this spring — let's not pretend this duo is set in stone at the moment.

They're set through 2024, and Parsons through at least 2025, barring new contracts, and that is simply the fact of the matter. So as the Cowboys navigate free agency (we'll address the 2024 NFL Draft in the near future), they'll need to keep every variable on the table to guarantee there are no steps in the wrong direction.

Zimmer will need horses at the edges, and the stable looks concerning ahead of free agency.

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.

The 20 Milli Club: Josh Allen, Brian Burns, Danielle Hunter - I'll begin by getting these gentlemen mentioned and out of the way, because I see no roadmap to any outside free agent landing an AAS (average annual salary) from the Cowboys of anywhere near $20 million, and that's the market price (or very near it) for this group, and particularly considering the fact both Parsons and Lawrence are likely to be extended no later than next offseason — combined with the hope on Sam Williams for the future.

A.J. Epenesa: Sticking with the more realistic options for the Cowboys, I can't get enough of picturing Epenesa in Dallas as a plug-and-play replacement for Armstrong in the event the latter heads out of town. Epenesa is an impact rotational pass rusher, much like Armstrong is, and the two have mounted similar campaigns over the past two seasons. Epenesa has 13 sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries but, and hold onto your britches here, he also has two interceptions (!!) and a defensive touchdown in only three combined starts since 2022.

The former second-round pick has been highly durable and extremely impactful with his reps, and provides plenty of special teams assistance as well and, better still, the 25-year-old's asking price could be very near what Armstrong was paid last season (roughly $6 million).

Za'Darius Smith: If Epenesa can be viewed as a perfect replacement for Armstrong that adds the element of interceptions to the mix at defensive end, then Smith can be viewed as one who could come in and instantly heal the potential loss of Fowler — a swap of talented, still-productive veteran pass rushers. I was completely in on the possibility of the Cowboys trading for Smith in 2022, but it was instead the Browns that made that deal (though Smith did say he also had interest in Dallas, hint hint).

The three-time Pro Bowler wasn't as productive in his 16 starts for the Browns as he was in the same number of starts the year prior for the Vikings, but let's not pretend 6.5 sacks (2023) is anything to shake a stick at — totaling 15.5 sacks over the past two seasons and 50 combined sacks since 2018 (and that's counting an IR season in 2021). He's still cooking at 31 years old, and imagining him with Parsons and Lawrence under Mike Zimmer — his former NFC North foe — is nightmare fuel for opposing quarterbacks (but he won't come cheap).

Leonard Floyd: Keeping to the spectrum of veteran free agent that includes Smith, and circling back to Buffalo (should probably grab some wings while we're here), Floyd's name is one that leaps forward as a feasible candidate to get a look-see from the Cowboys. I mean, how could he not, coming off of a 10.5-sack season and having racked up nearly 20 sacks since 2022??

He's also shown the ability to go from outside linebacker to defensive end, as needed, without losing an ounce of pass rush ability in the process. It also helps that Floyd owns a shiny Super Bowl ring from his time with the Rams and, as such, has the experience to command respect in the locker room and to impart championship knowledge onto the roster. Easily one of the most durable and still impactful pass rushers around — 58 career sacks tell that tale — Floyd slots in-between Epenesa and Smith on this list of candidates.

Denico Autry: At 33 years old, Autry presents the opportunity for signing the perfect bridge player that would allow Sam Williams more mentoring, but hopefully without stopping his progress. Don't get lost in Autry's age when it comes to level of play, though, because he remains one of the best in the league at playing 5-tech; and it's largely due to his sheer power and ability to slice through double teams en route to putting his hands on QBs; and often.

What's more is the fact you can slide him inside and he'd still eat a time or two at 3-tech as well, his versatility often on display for the Titans and the Colts before them, and the ageless wonder is actually trending upward in production — increasing his tally in that category nearly every seasons since 2020 and finishing the 2023 campaign with 11.5 on the year. His age would keep his price point palatable, and his production and leadership is something Zimmer would love to have.

Josh Uche: Since we've now visited Buffalo twice today, it makes sense we'd take a trip over to their bitter rivals in New England to see if there's anyone here worth having a look at and, whaddyaknow, there is. It's Uche, a former second-round pick who was able to emerge as a premier pass rusher for Bill Belichick in 2022 in tandem with Matthew Judon, to the tune of a career-high 11.5 sacks … in zero starts (my goodness).

The 25-year-old has not been a full-time starter in his four NFL seasons, and yet he's churned out production at a high rate, and while Smith, Floyd and Autry are viable options if Fowler walks, and arguably an upgrade in some ways, I view Uche in the same ways as Epenesa — someone who can do for you what Armstrong has been doing, and at a similar age for a potentially practical price. If push came to shove in this lane, Armstrong notwithstanding, I'd probably go with Epenesa, but don't confuse that as me seeing Uche as a consolation prize.

Jonathan Greenard, Bryce Huff: I view Greenard and Huff in much the same way, seeing as they're both two promising young pass rushers entering their fifth NFL season on the heels of explosive 2023 campaigns. This means you can likely pencil one or both in for major paydays, and deservedly so, driving their price higher than what Epenesa would likely ask — all things considered. Both Greenard and Huff are still very much on my radar, however, just less so than those mentioned above.

Greenard has emerged as a leader on the Texans' defense after Demeco Ryans moved him to the edge, the defensive coordinator turned head coach being rewarded with 12.5 sacks and 52 combined tackles for that decision. Huff scratched and clawed on an impressive Jets' defense under the watchful eye of Robert Saleh, another DC turned HC, showing an ability to rush from the edge or from the interior en route to 10 sacks last season.

Honorable mention: Chase Young, Jadeveon Clowney, Brandon Graham - You'll hear these names crop up in the free agency mix as well in one way or another, but I'm not going to lose any sleep if the Cowboys pass them by. Young showed up in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs, sure, but there's also film of the former first-round pick taking plays off last season, and don't get me started on his injury history. Clowney has never realized his full potential and though he produced 9.5 sacks last season, his career is marred with inconsistency and high asking prices.

I could be willing to kick the tires on Graham, definitely, but not on anything more than a two-year deal with a team option after the first year, which I feel would be a great balance between accounting for both his age (he'll be 36 this year) and his recent production for the Eagles (14 sacks with only 1 start over the last two seasons). Also, how fun would it be to enlist a lifelong Eagle to help take down Philadelphia in 2024? I'd throw an extra $100K in just for the sheer pettiness of it.

But that's just me.

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