Thursday, December 7, 2023

Cowboys free agency 2022: Top options to play opposite DeMarcus Lawrence following Randy Gregory departure

By now, you’ve likely heard of the events that took place within the confines of the Dallas Cowboys organization on Day 2 of 2022 NFL free agency. If you haven’t, welcome back from your coma, we’ve missed you. Randy Gregory, the bookend starting edge rusher opposite All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, finally struck a deal with the Cowboys to return on a five-year contract before pivoting to the waiting Denver Broncos — who began courting him on Monday, sources told CBS Sports ahead of legal tampering — when the agreement collapsed after an attempt by the Cowboys to insert language they deemed standard (but isn’t truly, as compared to other organizations).

The details of who is responsible for a humiliating contract collapse at the last second will be debated into perpetuity, but none of the mudslinging makes the picture for who’ll replace Gregory any clearer. That said, let’s grab some Windex and begin the work of cleaning off the windshield in Dallas, so that we may see who’s available and qualified to get a call as the potential starter to play in tandem with Lawrence and All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons in 2022 (and beyond?).

It’s unclear if team-favorite Dorance Armstrong, who had a strong contract year in 2021, is set to return, but with all due respect to his abilities, there are more potent options on the open market that could, presumably, make a potential re-signing of Armstrong all the better — from a depth standpoint — while also feeling things out at the moment with perennial All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner.

And let’s be honest, it’s not as if the Cowboys can now suddenly pretend they’re cap-poor, with at least $28 million still sitting on the table, unclaimed by Gregory. So let’s talk about my favorites on the edge, still available at the time of this article being filed. 

Tier A:

Von Miller

Previous team: Rams

Can the Cowboys make Miller the homecoming king in 2022? As expected, the future first ballot Hall of Famer was their first pivot after losing Gregory, and for good reasons. First and foremost, the seven-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler just recently proved he still has tread left on his tires, blowing past others’ concerns regarding durability and an alleged lost step by being a key force in the Los Angeles Rams run to a championship last season. Second, after having spent much of his career in Denver and now one year in LA, it appears he’s open to returning home — a DeSoto, Texas native who also attended Texas A&M and still owns a horse farm in North Texas — which explains the mutual interest he has in the Cowboys (and gives them several ready-made talking points in the process, as they currently negotiate behind the scenes).

Chandler Jones

Previous team: Cardinals

Easily one of my favorites to replace Gregory, Jones is still a game-changer at 32, Jones racked up 10.5 sacks in his return from injury last season, which marks his seventh double-digit sack season in the NFL in 10 attempts. His type of bend and twitch doesn’t grow on trees, and it’s arguably as physically close to the skill set of Gregory as you’ll find in free agency, even if he’s a tad bit older (three years). After contractual fallout with the Arizona Cardinals, Jones is now a free agent ready to sign with the right team for the right money, and plugging him in front of Parsons and opposite Lawrence — with All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs patrolling the backfield — would be a dream come true for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and a night terror for opposing quarterbacks.

Za’Darius Smith

Previous team: Packers

If you ask me which of the Tier A talent has the bigger upside, from a contractual and longterm production standpoint, Smith gets the nod. At 29, he’s the same age as Gregory and has a more productive resume, prior to undergoing back surgery that ended his 2021 season prematurely. And therein lies the rub/red flag on Smith, however, because back injuries that require surgery can either be no problem at all in the future or a big one, with little room for a compromise in-between. Smith’s camp is vehement that he’s back to full health and will be ready to go for whomever signs him, though, and it’s impossible to ignore a pass rusher who racked up 34 sacks from 2018 through 2020. Even if you structure his deal as one laden with incentives, it would behoove you to give him a call to see what he’s willing to work out, and on a defense that offers tons of help as he works himself back to top form.

Tier B:

Melvin Ingram 

Previous team: Chiefs

Should the Cowboys allow their wallet to get in the way of progress, there are less-expensive (but also less potent) pass rush options available as well. One such player is Ingram, who would love nothing more than to wipe the stain of 2021 off of his otherwise solid NFL career. The former first-round pick parted ways with the Los Angeles Chargers last season and eventually found his way to the Pittsburgh Steelers, only to feel he was misled regarding his potential role and, as such, head coach Mike Tomlin shipped him out of town to the Kansas City Chiefs. Similar to Smith, Ingram is trying to prove he’s the same guy he was prior to an injury (knee) that cost him half of the 2020 season, having produced 48 career sacks before suffering it. That could very well be the version of Ingram that returns in 2022, and a chip on his shoulder only makes him that much hungrier to punish quarterbacks.

Trey Flowers

Previous team: Lions

It’s not everyday you get a shot at signing a two-time Super Bowl champion (hi Von), and Flowers has the leverage of being younger than everyone on this list (except for the guy I’ll discuss next). The 28-year-old was bred in the championship fires of the New England Patriots as their fourth-round pick in 2015, and was also named to their All-Decade Team — a clear indication of the impact he had in Foxboro. When it came time to cash in during the free agency spree of 2019, Flowers took his talents to the Detroit Lions with a five-year deal worth $90 million, but the Lions continued to struggle and Flowers began battling injury in 2020, and that spilled over into 2021 as well. This will all put him at a lowered price point after being released by the Lions, and while there’s concern for durability here, it’s a Tier B talent that could do well if combined with a re-signing of Armstrong and addressing the position in the draft.

Derek Barnett

Previous team: Eagles

Few things are better for your NFL meal than seeing a player head to a bitter division rival. Barnett was a talented acquisition by the Philadelphia Eagles as their first-round pick (14th-overall) in the 2017 NFL Draft, going on to win a Super Bowl with the team along with PFWA All-Rookie Team honors in his first season. The downturn in production due to a calf injury in 2020 can easily be overlooked when considering he entered the season with 19.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 75 combined tackles over his first three seasons, and he’s now a free agent after playing out his fifth-year option in Philadelphia. Barnett is testing the waters in 2022, and it just so happens that the Cowboys are in dire need of another impact edge rusher; and wouldn’t it be interesting to see them use Barnett to help chase down Jalen Hurts in 2022? Of course it would, because rivalry.

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