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What's Next? Dallas' interior DL on unsolid ground


(Editor's 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 — Over the course of the last several seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have seen an emergence of talented defensive linemen, including on the interior of their defensive line, but it remains a position the organization will need to give energy to heading into the offseason.

With an all-important season ahead in 2024, one headlined by what amounts to a prove-it year on head coach Mike McCarthy and the addition of Mike Zimmer as defensive coordinator, upgrading the run defense and being able to pressure opposing quarterbacks more consistently from the inside has to be a focus in Dallas.

Let's take a look at what they're up against as the offseason gets underway.

Past: Not entirely different from their slate of historic defensive ends, the Cowboys have a list of memorable interior defensive lineman that have also help set the standard for what the position should be. Flex players mostly aside, some of the players who were more often dedicated to conquering opposing quarterbacks and rushing attacks include names like Randy "The Manster" White and Russell Maryland — White going on to don a gold jacket.

Maryland hasn't been immortalized in Canton, but that takes nothing away from his résumé with the Cowboys, one that includes three Super Bowl rings. 

It's a tall task to live up to such expectations, and especially if I were to toss in "Mr. Cowboy' himself, Bob Lilly, who began his career as an edge rusher before moving inside for the remainder of it. And then there's Jethro Pugh and Jeremiah "Jay" Ratliff, who left their respective footprint on the organization as well.

Stacking up against this lot is what's required to help the Cowboys get back to the Super Bowl.

Present: What's glaring absent in the current crop of Cowboys' defensive tackles is a legend-level presence, though I have not and will not be silent about what I am seeing from Osa Odighizuwa. He's one who has leveled up in every one of his three NFL seasons, easily one of the best pass rushers from the interior and a routine disruptor of opposing backfields. 

Odighizuwa has seven combined sacks over the past two seasons and 89 combined tackles to go along with 24 quarterback hits and a forced fumble. His ceiling is insanely high as a 3-tech (right of center), and the depth behind him isn't too shabby.

That includes promising young talent in Chauncey Golston and Neville Gallimore, and the latter truly took a step back toward prime form in 2024, finding his groove again after suffering a severe elbow injury in 2021 that ended his season (he simply wasn't the same in 2022 following that devastating injury). 

Gallimore was also active in every game last season, a nod to his return to durability as well.

But what of the situation at 1-tech (nose tackle)? 

Johnathan Hankins was instantly a savior at the position in run defense when he was acquired just ahead of the NFL trade deadline in 2022, earning a one-year extension thereafter. He took full advantage of a complete offseason program under Aden Durde and Dan Quinn and parlayed it into an even more productive 2023, even showing his ability to rush the passer — evidenced in a two-sack outing against the Commanders on Thanksgiving.

A part of the reason the Cowboys opted for only the one-year reup on Hankins, however, was to allow themselves the opportunity to draft a worthy successor, and they eventually gave the nod to Mazi Smith with their first-round pick last April.

Smith went on to flash once or twice, but had a mostly forgettable rookie season he'll need to put behind him and focus on making Year 2 one that shows what he can do. As it stands, before going through another offseason program and training camp to determine his utilization under a new defensive coordinator, an honest current assessment (in February) is that Smith isn't ready to take the mantle from Hankins.

Could that change by the time September rolls around? Absolutely, but that's a future state of affairs and not a current one; but let's now discuss exactly that: the future. 

Future: First and foremost, it's key to know that the Cowboys currently do not have a defensive tackle signed to a futures deal, so there's no development to be had there. That can and will likely change as free agency and the draft comes and goes but, for now, the future hinges upon those who are already under contract.

That said, not everyone is.

Gallimore, absent a new deal, will become an unrestricted free agent in March, along with Hankins. Adding to the concern here is that both Odighizuwa and Golston are entering a contract year in 2024 and, as mentioned, Smith requires more development before he can be fully unleashed to start impacting NFL games. 

The resolution here, in my opinion, is to re-sign Hankins and Gallimore — neither of which are expected to command a high price — while also adding talented veteran depth in free agency in conjunction with revisiting the position again in the 2024 NFL Draft.

I will be interested to see if Viliami "Junior" Fehoko gets tested more at 3-tech going forward under a new coordinator, because I see some potential there that might be untapped. 

There honestly should never be a draft that passes without a defensive linemen or two being added to the roster anyway, regardless of anything. This guarantees continual competition amongst the youth to step up to earn reps and provides a deeper pool to push veterans, or to replace them outright if the production isn't up to par.

There's a lot of work to be done on the interior of the defensive line in Dallas but, thankfully, most (not all, but most) of it is contractual.

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