Stephon Gilmore among Cowboys' top free agents on defense

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FRISCO, Texas -- New Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer acknowledged he is inheriting a good unit after Dan Quinn's three-year run calling the shots.

He has Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, DeMarcus Lawrence and DaRon Bland, but the Cowboys also have key players set to become free agents and a tricky salary cap situation that will make it difficult to keep the players they want.

Of the 16 players set to become free agents, eight are on the defensive side of the ball and seven played key roles either as a starter or role player.

Here is a look at the defensive players, as well as the two special teamers, with expiring contracts:


CB Stephon Gilmore

There is no question the Cowboys would like him to return, and he has mentioned he wants to return. The question -- like everything -- will be price. He made $10 million last year. Would he take much less to return? Would another team offer him more? He turns 34 in September but keeps himself in top shape. He had two interceptions and 13 pass breakups last season. He is excellent in the locker room for a defense that needs a veteran presence.

CB Jourdan Lewis

His return from a serious injury that essentially required his right foot to be realigned was nothing short of phenomenal. He was named the Cowboys' winner of the Ed Block Courage Award. He had 1 interception, 5 pass deflections, 2 fumble recoveries and a team-high 3 forced fumbles in the 2023 season. He is tough. He can blitz off the slot, which is key in Zimmer's defense. With the ascension of Bland and the return of Diggs (knee), the Cowboys would need a slot corner, especially if they are unable to keep Gilmore, which would move Bland to the slot. Lewis has been a valuable if underappreciated part of the Cowboys' defense.

DE Dorance Armstrong

He just finished his sixth season and is going to be only 27 years old in June. He has finished second on the defense in sacks the past two seasons with 8.5 in 2022 and 7.5 last season, despite a dip in his playing time. It was something of a surprise that he returned in 2022 when he first hit free agency, but the snag in negotiations with Randy Gregory paved the way for his return, and he produced. He is likely to receive a larger offer from another team that the Cowboys won't be able to match, which means the Cowboys will need former second-round pick Sam Williams to do more.

S Jayron Kearse

The writing on the wall for his future appeared to come last summer when the Cowboys signed Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker to extensions and not Kearse. He was a valuable part of Dan Quinn's scheme because of his ability to play multiple roles and defend tight ends, but he was not as good in the 2023 season as he was in 2022. He has a history with Zimmer, having played with the Minnesota Vikings, but he was never more than a role player. With Juanyeh Thomas and Markquese Bell, the Cowboys have pieces in place who are ready to go.

DE Dante Fowler Jr.

Should we just pencil him in with the Washington Commanders and a reunion with their new head coach Dan Quinn? Fowler came to Dallas to play for Quinn, then the defensive coordinator, and was productive (10 sacks in two seasons), but he had far too many penalties (5) for a player involved in 25.2% of the snaps.

DT Neville Gallimore

The former third-round pick never really found his niche in his past two seasons. He was active, but the numbers did not follow. There were some issues with his weight in 2022, but he was in better condition last year. Perhaps he returns on a one-year deal, but the Cowboys need to see what last year's fourth-round pick, Viliami Fehoko Jr., can do after he did not play a snap as a rookie.

DT Johnathan Hankins

He brings value to the defense, and the addition of Zimmer as defensive coordinator could make him even more valuable. Zimmer's defense was at its best with Linval Joseph plugging the middle. With last year's first-round pick Mazi Smith not producing, the Cowboys would be wise to protect themselves up the middle with a player of Hankins' size (325 pounds).

CB Noah Igbinoghene

Swapped for Kelvin Joseph at the start of the season from the Miami Dolphins, he scored a touchdown in his first game on a blocked punt versus the New York Giants but was not asked to play much of a role on defense. The former first-round pick should be elsewhere in 2024.

Special teams

CB C.J. Goodwin

To special teams coach John Fassel, Goodwin is the most valuable player in his unit. Goodwin is essentially a coach on the field. He played in only five games because of a torn pectoral muscle, and the coverage units were still solid. He is worth keeping as they continue on the minimum-salary route, with the contract and a portion of his base salary guaranteed.

LS Trent Sieg

In his first season with the Cowboys, Sieg did a nice job, forming a top trio with Pro Bowl kicker Brandon Aubrey and punter Bryan Anger. The Cowboys have made it clear they are willing to pay only the minimum salary for long-snappers these days, so that's likely what Sieg will get to return.