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What's Next? Hard questions face Cowboys' EDGE


(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 — In looking at what the Dallas Cowboys did well during the Dan Quinn era, two things jump right off of the page, and that's their ability to take the ball away as well as pressure the opposing quarterback; and that's also thanks largely to the fact there's a Lion stalking the pasture in North Texas.

But as Quinn departs for his role as head coach of the Washington Commanders, the fallout could trickle down to looming roster moves and the defensive line isn't immune.

To know where you're going means also knowing from whence you came, so let's see if this version of the Cowboys' pass rush corps is far or near to their legendary predecessors; and what changes might loom over the next several months.

Past: There is a lot for defensive ends/outside linebackers in Dallas to live up to, to say the very least. In an organization that boasts a laundry list of Hall of Famers and/or Ring of Honor Inductees at the position, it's impossible to walk the halls at The Star in Frisco without seeing names and images of former players like Bob Lilly casting a rightfully judgmental gaze upon you, and it doesn't end there.

After all, Charles Haley literally still walks the building and patrols the practice fields, applying his own brand of advice and criticism with the hopes of pushing the newcomers — as well as the veterans — of the defensive line to heights they probably never fathomed themselves capable of reaching.

You'll also catch legendary outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware strolling the premises from time to time, his own immortalization into the Hall of Fame occurring in 2023.

It all serves as a constant reminder of what the standard is as a pass rusher for the Cowboys, and while it's unknown what the final story will be for the current group, it feels as if the unit is just one major player (or breakout of another current player) away from taking the next and final step in pleasing the myriad of great ones that came before them.

Present: Admit it, you didn't like the decision to use yet another first-round pick on an off-ball linebacker, and especially with a top-15 selection.

Fast forward to today and that player now has been named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, a Butkus Award winner, and has three Pro Bowl nods to go along with three All-Pro nods with a resume that boasts 89 quarterback hits, 51 tackles for loss and 40.5 sacks (third-most in NFL history through first 50 games, ahead of Lawrence Taylor (37.5)); and the name Micah Parsons rings bells in every football mind.

Playing opposite Parsons is a future Ring of Honor talking point in DeMarcus Lawrence, who continues to play at an elite level, particularly as a run-stopper, and was arguably snubbed in not making this year's Pro Bowl on the first vote. Parsons and Lawrence provide outstanding bookends to the Cowboys' offensive line, but they're not the only ones getting the job done.

Dorance Armstrong, a criminally underrated player by many fans and analysts alike, has improved every single season since joining the club as a fourth-round pick out of Kansas in 2018; and despite having to do so for three different defensive coordinators in only six years. He's a glue guy that can rush from the weak or the strong side, and effectively, and his 21 combined sacks over the past three seasons illustrate that point.

Added support arrived by way of Dante Fowler's signing in 2022, his immediate impact landing the former first-round pick a second one-year deal, and giving Sam Williams some time to develop a raw skill set that is as good as any you've seen.

Depth issues begin to emerge behind Williams, however, with rookie fourth-round pick Viliami "Junior" Fehoko showing promise but not enough to crack the active roster a single time in 2023 — going from his weekly trip on inactives list to injured reserve in Year 1.

And considering the current contract situations in Dallas, depth at the edge becomes an even bigger question mark going forward.

Future: Parsons is eligible to begin contract negotiations with the Cowboys this offseason, though the club could simply exercise his fifth-year option to give them more time before visiting with him on the topic, considering CeeDee Lamb's deal needs to be agreed to sooner than later; but no matter when talks begin, it'll likely take making Parsons the highest-paid player in NFL history to keep him in a Cowboys' uniform.

But, for now, let's put a pin in that and focus on the more imminent contractual (and depth) concerns.

Armstrong isn't the flashiest player but, as noted, he's one of the best in a group of pass rushers who, in and of itself, is one of the best in the NFL, and he's set to become an unrestricted free agent in March unless a new deal is done before then. If so, it will mark the second extension for Armstrong, and a worthy one, considering what he means rotationally for the next defensive coordinator is in Dallas.

And can you guess who else is up for immediate contract talks? If you said Lawrence, you nailed it, and it should invoke a bit of anxiety, to be honest. That's not because I believe the Cowboys would be unwise enough to let him walk, but rather in assessing how unpleasant contract talks have gone with him on numerous occasions in the past.

That said, in the end, owner and general manager Jerry Jones made sure the deal got done, each time, so there's at least hope on my part that history will repeat itself there.

It's fair to say that both Armstrong and Lawrence should be top priority re-signings this offseason, and especially until more data and film can be gathered on Fehoko to determine his role for the future.

The latter also applies to other young players entering Year 2 such as Durrell Johnson and Tyrus Wheat, but that's far too much unproven youth at one of the most important positions in football for my liking (in the capacity of considering handing them the keys opposite Parsons).

And did I mention that Fowler is also on his way to becoming an unrestricted free agent but, this time, Dan Quinn isn't trying to keep him in Dallas. In 2024, Quinn is likely looking for yet another reunion with Fowler — this time in a Commanders' uniform.

This is something to seriously keep an eye on.

The best move here is the ones I stated regarding Armstrong and Lawrence, add another impact edge rusher in free agency (assuming it's not Fowler), grab another body at some point in the 2024 NFL Draft and then lift an entire Wells Fargo branch off of its foundation and place it into the trunk of Parsons' truck.

Doing anything less will result in a step in the wrong direction, and in a season when the only steps that can be afforded are the ones that move you forward.

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