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Pre-draft position preview: Outside of DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys are short on proven edge rushers

Randy Gregory flashed brilliance in a Week 16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but he must show consistency over a full season.

The Dallas Cowboys made subtle moves in free agency, not counting the long-term deal reached with QB Dak Prescott, by signing a few veteran defensive players. But work remains before the 2021 team takes shape. This is the sixth of a 10-part series evaluating the roster entering the April 29-May 1 draft. Today’s focus is on edge rushers:

DeMarcus Lawrence again was the Cowboys’ top defender in 2020.

Per usual, fluidity at edge defender existed opposite him.

Defensive end Aldon Smith signed a one-year contract and performed as well as could be expected for someone who spent four-plus seasons out of the NFL amid struggles with mental health and alcohol abuse. Smith achieved a league-high four sacks in the first three games before one in the final 13.

Dallas signed Everson Griffen in August.

Soon after Randy Gregory’s midseason return from suspension, the team dealt Griffen to the Detroit Lions. Gregory was so impressive during the final 10 games that an argument could be made that he played too few of snaps at certain junctures.

Today, despite coach Mike McCarthy not publicly closing the door on the possibility, Smith is unlikely to be re-signed.

Gregory will be active at right defensive end along with Tarell Basham, a former New York Jets outside linebacker whom the Cowboys signed last month.

Draft need: 5 out of 10

On the roster

PlayerAgeYears left
DeMarcus Lawrence283
Randy Gregory281
Tarell Basham272
Dorance Armstrong231
Bradlee Anae233
Ron’Dell Carter231
Ladarius Hamilton241

Position strengths

To appreciate Lawrence’s on-field production requires looking beyond the 6 1/2 figure in his 2020 sack column.

Few NFL players operate with a higher motor than him, as he’s able to disrupt both the run and pass. Pro Football Focus gave Lawrence its fifth-highest season grade of any edge defender in 2020, slotting him behind only Khalil Mack, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett.

If the Cowboys can improve against the run and force opposing teams into more third-and-longs or late-game, two-minute situations, a double-digit sack count is entirely attainable.

Position weaknesses

It is possible the Cowboys could be in fine shape at right end.

That, however, requires a bit of a projection. Little is proven.

At times last season, then-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula showed a heavy hand when feeding Smith and Armstrong reps in lieu of Gregory and Anae, a 2020 fifth-round draft pick.

Gregory flashed brilliance in a Week 16 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but he must show consistency over a full season. Basham, a strong scheme fit on paper, will be transitioning to a new defense.

There are some moving pieces here. Another addition or two with some player development success stories can help solidify the group.

Draft prospects

Jaelan Phillips, Miami: Nation’s No. 1 recruit as a high schooler. Recorded nine sacks and 36 total pressures in final seven games of 2020. Medical history while at UCLA a potential concern.

Kwity Paye, Michigan: Another explosive athlete. Can tap into extreme potential by refining his plan as pass rusher, expanding repertoire of moves.

Gregory Rousseau, Miami: Opted out of the 2020 season. Freakish length with an 83 1/4-inch wingspan. Recorded 19 1/2 tackles for loss and 15 1/2 sacks in 2019,

Jayson Oweh, Penn State: Completely crushed his pro day. Ran a sub-4.40 40-yard dash as part of an overall display of athleticism. But still raw as football player; no sacks in seven games last season.

Azeez Ojulari, Georgia: Twitchy athlete who can bend the edge. Lacks the height/weight associated with a 4-3 edge rusher but good length (34 3/8″ arms).

Series schedule

April 5: Quarterback

April 6: Running back

April 7: Wide receiver

April 8: Tight end

April 9: Offensive line

April 10: Edge rusher

April 11: Defensive tackle

April 12: Linebacker

April 13: Cornerback

April 14: Safety

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Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

In This Story

Michael Gehlken. Michael Gehlken joined the Cowboys beat for the Dallas Morning News in August 2019. This marks his 11th season covering the NFL, previously having reported on the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

michael.gehlken@dallasnews.com GehlkenNFL
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