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Offseason | 2024

IMPACT: Dallas' D-line depth cratered by free agency


FRISCO, Texas — There is no other way to state it, nor should anyone try to paint it as less than the glaring issue that it is currently, as the TV have watched NFL free agency hit their usually stout defensive line depth like a meteor.

News of Neville Gallimore signing with the Miami Dolphins combines with Johnathan Hankins' decision this week to reunite with former Cowboys' defensive line coach turned Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator to worsen things.

Initially, and right out of the gates, Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler opted to follow former Cowboys' defensive coordinator turned Washington Commanders' head coach Dan Quinn out of North Texas — two impact pass rushers (and Armstrong also being a key run stopper and special teams ace) being peeled away from Dallas' depth chart with relative ease.

Needless to say, Hankins' impact on the run defense was much-needed, hence the trade for him in 2022 and re-signing last offseason, while Gallimore returned to form as a rotational talent on the interior of the defensive line that put plenty of good things on film in 2023.

Additionally, Gallimore showed great promise as a rookie third-round pick in 2020 before suffering a devastating elbow injury in 2021, one that he struggled to climb back from in 2022. Having admittedly battled with the recovery mentally as well, as in not playing the game the way he was prior to the injury, he'd finally get back to being himself in 2023; and that led to a nod on the final roster in August and another strong season that rivaled his first.

This was Gallimore's first trip to free agency in his young career, and his resurgence last season gave plenty of reason for teams to be interested in his services for 2024 and beyond.

And, now, eyes turn to a younger crop of unproven talent that will and must take sizable leaps forward in the season to come, in order to ensure the dynamic play of OsaOdighizuwa isn't the only in the middle of the defensive line; and that Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence have backups who can step in and prevent a massive drop off in production when they require rest, or if the injury bug decides to a bite.

Whether there will be an addition to the unit in free agency and/or the 2024 NFL Draft is to-be-determined, but it wouldn't change what's going to be required of players like MaziSmith, Chauncey Golston, Sam Williams, and Junior Fehoko— or those on the fringes of the roster such as Durrell Johnson and Carl Davis, who will be clawing to retain a roster seat all summer.

Smith, the team's first-round pick in 2023, has the talent and strength to be a dominant force at nose tackle, but a drop in weight as a rookie and a slowed get-off hamstrung his performance, and it will be paramount that, without Hankins, Smith execute a 180-degree turn under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer. The run defense will all but depend on it, along with Golston helping Smith and Odighizuwa as both a run defender and pass rusher from the inside.

Golston is entering a contract year, and that should provide added motivation to perform while many signs pointing to the 26-year-old getting plenty of opportunities to try and do so — having shown promise on more than one occasion behind the now-departed veterans.

It'll be a steeper slope to climb for Fehoko than that of Golston, considering the former didn't earn any burn as a rookie last season, but that won't be the case in Year 2. A fourth-round pick last April, Fehoko has a motor that won't quit and simply needs to refine his technique, though it'll be interesting to see if Zimmer views him more as a 3-tech (right of center) or support on the edge.

And then there is Sam Williams, who now has a clear path to a lot more reps with the exit of Fowler, and Williams' talent is as unique as it is aggressive. He's proven capable in stopping the run, more than capable in rushing the passer and an ability to wreak havoc on special teams, but he'll need to find balance between his aggression and drawing untimely penalties.

There is a lot to sort out here for the Cowboys this summer and leading into the 2024 season because, for the first time in a long time, the depth on their defensive line is wafer thin until proven otherwise.

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