DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys have made rebuilding the defense a priority this offseason and they’ve added a number of pieces to get better thus far. The free agency pickups began with the interior of the defensive line with the signings of Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban. The Cowboys then moved on to upgrading the safety position by bringing in Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee, and Jayron Kearse.
However, when the club declined on bringing back defensive end Aldon Smith, it left a void at pass rusher. The Cowboys have their starters in DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, but they could use some help to fill out the defensive end position.
An influx of talent is needed to boost the defense’s pass rush and the Cowboys should be trying to add another edge rusher before the draft comes along.
If Dallas doesn’t add a defensive end early in the draft, then a veteran who can join the rotation and get after the quarterback becomes a desperate need. Taking a chance in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft would be fine, but a middle-rounds draftee is very unlikely to make an impact for the Cowboys in their rookie season. The team needs another legit option to disrupt opposing offenses behind Lawrence and Gregory.
Fortunately, there are still options available. Veteran pass rushers who can be a big boost to the defense are still on the market. Two solid options for the Cowboys would be former Indianapolis Colts edge rusher Justin Houston and former Washington Football Team defensive end Ryan Kerrigan. Both are in their 30s, but they can still play and could make a big impact for the Cowboys.
Houston had eight sacks last season, but he’s had at least 7.5 sacks in every season following his rookie year when he’s been healthy enough to play at least ten games. In the last three years, Houston has averaged 9.3 sacks per season with a three-year high of 11 sacks in 2019. If the veteran pass rusher is slowing down, he hasn’t shown many signs of age.
The Cowboys also don’t need Houston to be their top edge presence, they already have that in Lawrence. Houston would be more of a situational pass rusher who could thrive with fewer snaps. Teaming Houston with Lawrence and Gregory could provide a major lift to the Dallas defense.
Former rival Kerrigan is perhaps best known for terrorizing the Cowboys over the years. In 10 seasons with the WFT, Kerrigan had 13.5 sacks against the Cowboys and it felt like more. Kerrigan will be 33 in August and was pushed out of the rotation in Washington due to their outstanding youth on the defensive line. However, Kerrigan is still a capable pass rusher and he could thrive as a third option in Dallas.
Without the same amount of wear and tear on his body from 2020, Kerrigan might have more juice in the tank for the upcoming season and benefit as a pass rushing specialist for the Cowboys.
Those are just two names to know but there are others who could help Dallas even if the remaining options come with a few more question marks. Former Los Angeles Chargers edge rusher Melvin Ingram is another name still available, but he struggled in 2020. Although Ingram failed to pick up a sack in seven games last year, he averaged over eight sacks a season in the prior five campaigns. Ingram might be worth a look if other options are exhausted.
Olivier Vernon would be a good addition, as well. Vernon had nine sacks and 16 quarterback hits in 2020 with the Cleveland Browns and could be an excellent fit as a third pass rusher on the Cowboys. The veteran isn’t flashy, but he’s consistent at getting sacks. Vernon has at least 6.5 sacks in seven of his nine seasons in the league.
There are other lower-level edge rushers that remain available, but Houston, Kerrigan, Ingram, or Vernon are four veteran options that could really help the Cowboys at a position of need. All are over 30-years old, of course, but a role as a situational pass rusher with limited snaps in Dallas could revitalize their careers.
Dallas may also want to see what they have in second-year defensive end Bradlee Anae. However, if the team feels like Anae isn’t ready for an elevated role, a proven veteran could be a potential boon as Anae develops.
The draft could also bring help, but this doesn’t seem to be a great year for pass rushers and Dallas still needs to get better and younger in the secondary so that might take priority come draft weekend. Nevertheless, the team could still wait and see what the draft produces before dipping into the veteran defensive end market.
In the last two offseasons, the Cowboys have made their move to get an edge rusher well into free agency and that could be the plan again.
Do you think the Cowboys should be targeting more help for their pass rush ahead of the NFL Draft? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.