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Offseason | 2021

Roster Reset: How Set Are Things At DE?


The free-agent signing period is not over by any means, but it certainly has gotten quieter both with the Cowboys and around the league. The focus is shifting now to the NFL Draft, which is scheduled for April 29-May 1.

While it's still possible to see more moves between now and the draft, the bulk of the player movement has already passed.

With that being said, let's take a quick look at each position on the roster and see where things stand heading into the draft later this month.

Today, we'll take a look at the defensive end position.

What Changed: The headliner here is that Aldon Smith is currently unsigned – which prompts a curious line of conversation.

Reports surfaced last month that the Cowboys had opted to move on from the veteran pass rusher, who signed on last offseason after a four-year hiatus and finished with 5.5 sacks. But when asked about it two weeks ago, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy disagreed with that assessment.

"I personally haven't moved on," McCarthy said. "I was in a conversation yesterday about Aldon, so we'll see how that works out moving forward."

In the meantime, the front office did add some veteran help at the position. They signed four-year veteran Tarell Basham, who was most recently with the New York Jets. Basham, who had interest from the Cowboys during the 2017 draft cycle, was eventually drafted 80th overall by Indianapolis. He spent the last two seasons with the Jets, posting 5.5 sacks in 32 appearances.

Fellow veteran signing Brent Urban figures to play more at defensive tackle, but he also has experience playing defensive end during the course of his seven-year NFL career.

What's Here: The emergence of Randy Gregory over the second half of 2020 makes the depth chart look a lot more appealing than it normally would.

DeMarcus Lawrence clearly headlines things. Lawrence, who is about to turn 29, is entering his eighth season with the Cowboys and his third season since signing his $105 million contract extension. Lawrence continues to be a hot topic of debate among fans and media. The common argument is that he's a much better all-around defender than he gets credit for. But it's also undeniable that he has recorded just 11.5 sacks since signing his extension. During the 2017 and 2018 seasons that helped him earn his big pay day, he more than doubled that number with 25 total sacks across those two years.

Gregory was a bright spot during an otherwise dismal season. He returned from a lengthy absence at the halfway point of the year and set about showing off the talent that has always made him such an intriguing player. He didn't start a single game, mainly rotating behind Smith on the right side of the line, but he managed to finish with 21 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 16 pressures and nine quarterback knockdowns despite playing just 21% of the snaps.

Behind the trio of Lawrence, Gregory and Basham is Dorance Armstrong, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract. Armstrong has mainly been a rotational player to this point in his career, as he posted 33 tackles and didn't manage a sack in 2020. But he has developed into a core special teamer and someone the coaching staff clearly values.

Lastly comes the duo of Bradlee Anae and Ron'Dell Carter. Anae was a particularly exciting prospect last season after sliding to the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft – but it didn't translate to the field. The rookie was rarely active, and he played just six defensive snaps.

It will be interesting to see if a more traditional training camp and preseason help Anae and Carter make a larger impact in their second seasons.

What's Next: In almost any other season, a team with the No. 10 overall draft pick would be talking a lot about edge rushers, but the value just doesn't seem to be there this year.

Common logic says that most of the talent at the top of this draft is on the offensive side of the ball, in addition to a few coverage players.

There are some defensive ends worth knowing, such as the Miami duo of Gregory Rousseau and Jaelan Phillips, or perhaps Michigan's Kwity Paye. In general, though, most analysts tend to agree that No. 10 is too early to take a pass rusher in this year's class.

In that case, it will be interesting to see if the Cowboys seek to bolster their defensive end depth later on. Wake Forest's Carlos Basham and Pittsburgh's Patrick Jones are both guys they could potentially look at on Day 2.

It's entirely possible they could stand pat on defensive end this year, as well. Lawrence and Gregory are a solid starting duo, and Basham is decent depth. Who knows, it's also possible they could return to the free agent market – Aldon Smith or otherwise – after the draft.

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