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NFL Draft options for Cowboys: Is defensive end on the radar?

With Randy Gregory heading to Denver, defensive end could be a position to target in the first round for the Dallas Cowboys at the NFL Draft.

DALLAS — The 2022 NFL Draft is just around the corner and the Dallas Cowboys have likely zeroed in on the short list of positions that they could select from. All of the offseason maneuvering has pointed to a few places of need for the Cowboys.

Offensive line and wide receiver are the favorites as to the direction that Dallas might go with the 24th overall pick. However, defensive end could be a position that garners significant consideration.

After losing starting defensive end Randy Gregory, the defense has a hole opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence that needs filling. The Cowboys did re-sign Dorance Armstrong and signed veteran edge rusher Dante Fowler to pitch in for the pass rush, but neither are considered a long-term, starter-caliber answer.

Last year’s third-round selection Chauncey Golston is also an option, but he didn’t show enough during his rookie season to allow the Cowboys to bypass the position in the early rounds.

With that in mind, here are some of the options at defensive end that could be there for the Cowboys at pick No. 24 in the draft:

Jermaine Johnson, Florida St.

A few weeks ago, this had a chance of happening, but now it looks like the Cowboys will have to trade up if they want a shot at Johnson, who’s become one of the real risers during the draft process. Johnson only has one season of elite production – 11.5 sacks in 2021 – but has the size, speed, and athletic ability to blossom into a star at the next level.

There’s an explosiveness to Johnson’s first step, and he also has the bend to dip and turn the edge to get after the quarterback. Johnson’s array of pass rushing moves is yet another positive to his emerging game.

Johnson might have been overlooked as a top pass rush prospect initially, but he’s positioned himself to be picked in the top half of the draft. He would be a perfect fit for the Cowboys, but Dallas would likely have to get creative to land Johnson.

George Karlaftis, Purdue

Karlaftis moves well for a man listed at 6 feet, 4 inches and 275 pounds, and he has good athleticism to track down quarterbacks. He also has the strength to bull rush offensive linemen.

His relentlessness is one of the more prominent traits that might endear Karlaftis to teams looking for a first round defensive end. Karlaftis is a strong edge rusher, but he also makes plays by working until the play is dead.

Despite being one of the best defensive ends in the country, Karlaftis only had 4.5 sacks last season and has work to do against the run. Karlaftis should garner serious consideration from the Cowboys if he makes it to the 24th pick.

Arnold Ebiketie, Penn State

Another fast riser who saved his best season for his senior year, Ebiketie had a career-high 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss for the Nittany Lions in 2021. Ebiketie possesses a quick first step and has some of the best bend in this class.

Ebiketie has the athleticism and twitch that are ideal for a pass rusher, but he’s still developing and drafting him in the first round is a gamble that he'll make good on that promise.

The measurables and potential are evident with Ebiketie, who could make for an intriguing option for Dallas at 24, and he could even be there later if the team opts to trade back.

Boye Mafe, Minnesota

Mafe has the tools that many teams like in an edge rusher. The former Golden Gopher has elite athleticism, an explosive first step, and good movement skills to be an option as a traditional defensive end or as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 alignment. In today’s game, that’s the kind of versatility that teams look for.

Mafe doesn’t play against the run as well yet, which is an issue, but he makes up for it with a relentless motor. Mafe will pursue the ball until the whistle blows.

At 6 feet, 4 inches, 265 pounds, Mafe improved on his tackles for loss and his sack total in each of his four years at Minnesota, which suggests that his best football is still ahead of him.

Trading down and acquiring picks would be the ideal scenario if Mafe is their man, but if he’s there at No. 24, and the Cowboys like him, they won’t be afraid to make him the pick.

Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma

Bonitto has been thought of as more of a second-round prospect through most of the draft process, but he has been moving up draft boards and if the Cowboys trade down into the early second round, Bonitto could be a target. He might be a bit undersized, but Bonitto’s got great speed, a quick first step, and natural bend coming off the edge.

Over the last two seasons, Bonitto had 16 sacks and 26.5 tackles for a loss for the Sooners. What Bonitto lacks in measurables, he makes up for with a high motor, athleticism, and undeniable production.

Bonitto doesn’t fit the typical DE profile that the Cowboys prefer, but he was a disruptive force in college and could make for an effective pass rusher under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

Are you hoping to see the Cowboys find a bookend to play opposite DeMarcus Lawrence at the NFL Draft? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.

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