It's been a brutal past several days for the Dallas Cowboys following the regular season opener. Their loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wasn't, in and of itself, the end of the world -- given how lights out two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott played in his return to football and how scathingly close that put them to shocking the world in Week 1. But since that contest, they've gotten round after round of bad news, and the latest is a doozy that centers on All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence.
The 29-year-old suffered a fractured foot (broken fifth metatarsal) in practice on Wednesday, sources told CBS Sports, and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks while he recovers. It's a massive blow for the Cowboys, considering Lawrence is the best defender on the roster, and comes only days after the two-time Pro Bowler graded out as the best defender on the field in Week 1. Replacing him will put newly-installed defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to the test, but Quinn does have a plan.
That plan will look considerably different for Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles than this coming Sunday versus the Los Angeles Chargers, however, because Randy Gregory remains on the COVID/Reserve list after testing positive and was not present at practice on Wednesday. Gregory, who is vaccinated, is without symptoms and will need to produce only two negative tests that are at least 24 hours apart to take the field this week. He's not been ruled out just yet, leaving the door open for a possible start, but much like the news on Lawrence -- albeit much more temporary on Gregory -- they'll have to map out a plan for Los Angeles that doesn't include their other starter at the edge as well.
Again, all eyes are on Quinn and the Cowboys backups going forward. The team isn't looking to add a player via trade at the moment in the wake of the news on Lawrence, sources say, but instead give first crack at the in-house talent.
A peek into free agency could be in play, but not immediately, because they'd like to first see how things go in the first week or so with the current stable of players (i.e., they're not panicking). It bears mentioning the Cowboys also recently signed former second-round pick Breeland Speaks to the practice squad, who might get called up sooner than later.
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To salve the gaping hole created by the loss of Lawrence, they'll lean heavily on Dorance Armstrong Jr. to lead the way, a longtime backup of Lawrence who is coming off of a very impressive training camp and preseason. Armstrong is also playing in a contract year, so taking full advantage of center stage literally might add a couple bags to any coming contract negotiations with the Cowboys in the offseason to come -- or any other team he might have a conversation with. In a league fueled by motivation and opportunity, the latter is often elusive for players on teams with a megastar playing in front of them.
For Armstrong, the opportunity to show what he can do has arrived like never before in his four-year career, and Quinn expects the former fourth-round pick out of Kansas to take full advantage. But don't expect Armstrong to operate on an island for 6-8 weeks, because there are other reinforcements who'll see an increase in expectation.
The headliner will be rookie first-round pick Micah Parsons, a former pass rusher turned linebacker who was seen getting work as the former in training camp. Furthering this point, Parsons also did after-practice work on his pass rush techniques with both Lawrence and future Hall of Fame linebacker DeMarcus Ware -- both giving him high praise for his ability to rush the passer. A mix that sees Parsons take on some edge work would then open the door for rookie fourth-round pick Jabril Cox to see the field a bit more at the second level, and considering how impressive Cox has been thus far, an increased snap count for him wouldn't exactly be a bad thing for the Cowboys.
And speaking of rookies, there's the matter of Chauncey Golston, a third-round pick who spent the entirety of camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list before passing his physical in late August to make the final 53-man roster. Golston was inactive in the regular season opener as the Cowboys ramp him up for his NFL debut, but the question remains on if that will be in Week 2 or Week 3. Once he's unleashed, though, he'll have to hit the ground running in a major way.
Golston was a standout in OTAs/minicamp, and that's the energy the Cowboys need -- combining with the free agency signing of Tarell Basham and what should be an increased role now for second-year talent Bradlee Anae on the edge. Additionally, don't discount a rep or two that sees Jaylon Smith sent at the opposing quarterback, and not necessarily just as a blitz package. Quinn is looking to deploy a mix of fronts going forward, something that will both keep the opposing offense guessing and buy time until Lawrence returns.
The timing of the injury to Lawrence is as fortuitous as the Cowboys could hope for, all things considered. Barring a setback, it's not season-ending and it occurred ahead of Week 2 with the team having a bye in Week 7. This means it's possible Lawrence is back on the field when they exit their bye week or shortly thereafter, giving them their best defender for the second half of the season, when it matters most.
Until then, Quinn and his backup pass rushers are about to earn their money.