Cowboys need to show there's a Plan B at pass-rusher after losing Randy Gregory

FRISCO, Texas -- There’s blame to go all around in the Randy Gregory flip-flop from the Dallas Cowboys to the Denver Broncos, but none of that matters anymore.

The defensive end can feel disrespected about forfeiture language that is standard in every Cowboys contract but one -- quarterback Dak Prescott's. The Cowboys can feel betrayed about losing a player they stood by through a number of suspensions and missed games. Whatever. He’s now with the Broncos on a five-year, $70 million deal.

What matters most to the Cowboys is how they handle the loss of a player who was valuable to their defense and find a more-than-suitable replacement.

Agreeing to a deal with defensive end Dorance Armstrong has to be a start, not a finish. Armstrong had five sacks last year to Gregory’s six. He had 37 tackles to Gregory’s 16. He had 22 pressures to Gregory’s 30. But he is not the same dynamic pass-rusher. He has improved each year since the Cowboys got him in the fourth round of the 2018 draft. He can play multiple roles. He can even help on special teams.

But the Cowboys need more pass-rush help after losing Gregory.

It’s clear they aren’t going to deviate from their recent free-agent plan but they have a second chance at linebacker Za'Darius Smith after he backed off an agreement with the Baltimore Ravens. That deal was reportedly $35 million over four years. Smith played in one regular-season game for the Green Bay Packers last year because of a back injury but returned for the playoffs. He had 12.5 sacks in 2020.

The Cowboys never dove deep into the Von Miller talks since they knew they would not be close to the contract he got from the Buffalo Bills. Same with Chandler Jones, who joined the Las Vegas Raiders.

If not Smith, then maybe they talk with Jadeveon Clowney, who has the same agent as Armstrong. Or DE Arden Key. Or LB Justin Houston. Or ... somebody.

Losing Gregory hurts.

With Gregory, DE DeMarcus Lawrence and LB Micah Parsons, the Cowboys would have had their best three pressure players on their front on the same defense since DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Greg Ellis/Anthony Spencer.

Last year, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys allowed 4.4 yards per play, 4.7 yards per pass attempt and a 17.9 opposing QBR when Gregory, Lawrence and Parsons were on the field together. All of those would have ranked first in the NFL over the course of a season.

Of course, they only played 140 snaps together in 2021.

Perhaps that is not a big enough sample size to project over a full season but in the second year of coordinator Dan Quinn’s system, you would have expected growth, provided all three stayed healthy.

What the Cowboys can’t do is think that signing a Jeremy Mincey or George Selvie type will be the same as Gregory. Mincey, who once led the Cowboys with six sacks in 2014, and Selvie had their moments and were good, low-cost signings. The Cowboys can’t think that taking a pass-rusher in the first or second round of the draft will be the same as Gregory. Or think that last year’s third-round pick, defensive end Chauncey Golston, is ready to do all that Gregory did.

Yet Gregory is replaceable.

He never started a full season. His career-high came last year when he had 11 starts. He missed four games with a calf injury and one more because of COVID-19. He has never had more than six sacks in a season, doing it twice. Gregory had a 16.2% pass rush win rate, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information. He generated the first pressure on 18% of his pass rushes, which ranked 18th out of 191 qualifying players.

One answer might be Parsons. He had 13 sacks last season as a rookie. He showed he can be a true pass-rusher. But do the Cowboys want to take away what made him special -- the ability to line up anywhere to present matchup problems? It doesn’t sound that way, although there is interest in linebacker Bobby Wagner.

There are other answers still available. Clowney. Key. DE Derek Barnett. Houston. LB Dante Fowler Jr.

The Cowboys wouldn’t get out of their comfort zone and sign a high-priced free agent after losing Gregory.

Now they have to show they have a Plan B.