What they have: Terrell McClain ($1 million base salary), Tyrone Crawford ($675,000), Josh Brent ($745,000), Amobi Okoye ($745,000), Chris Whaley ($510,000), Ken Bishop ($510,000), Davon Coleman ($510,000).
The position: The Cowboys have two free agents in Henry Melton, who had five sacks last season, and Nick Hayden, who led the defensive line in tackles last season, ready to hit the free-agent market. Of the two, Hayden is the more likely to return.
In a way the Cowboys lucked into finding out Crawford’s best position was at the three technique. He spent most of the offseason and training camp at defensive end but moved inside early in the regular season and flourished. He had three sacks and 29 quarterback hurries, which are numbers that should go up the more he gets accustomed to playing the position.
He played defensive end in a 3-4 as a rookie, missed the 2013 season with a torn Achilles and had to adjust to a new spot in 2014.
The nose tackle position is important for the Cowboys, but not at the cost of a first-round pick (see Sharrif Floyd from a couple of years ago) and not for major dollars, especially if that player offers nothing as a pass-rusher. In the Cowboys system, they want the one technique to occupy space and play on running downs. Whatever they can get in the passing game is a bonus.
McClain’s first year with the Cowboys was slowed because of ankle injuries. He can play the nose spot but also has some position flexibility. Brent is the biggest tackle they have but has to work his way into the game after his off-field issues cost him roughly two seasons. Bishop was a seventh-round pick last year and played well in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Best available: Ndamukong Suh. While there are dreams that the Cowboys will make a play for Suh, they are too far-fetched. The Cowboys will not have the money to compete to sign Suh. He might be the best free agent to hit the market since Reggie White and can change the game, but the cost is just too high for Dallas. But it won’t stop a team from signing him to a deal that might be the largest for a defensive player in NFL history.
Best Cowboys fit: Stephen Paea’s ties to Rod Marinelli in Chicago make him a natural target but it will all come down to cost. Paea had six sacks last season, which would have tied for the Cowboys lead, and is not the run stopper the Cowboys might want. For that another player with Marinelli ties, Cory Redding, could be a fit on a one-year deal.
What they will do: The analytics folks won’t like it, but the Cowboys will re-sign Hayden while using the draft to find a bigger body on the inside to pair up with Brent, Bishop and McClain.