Fans of the Dallas Cowboys are optimistic about the upcoming season thanks largely in part to the improved health on the offensive side of the ball. In a previous article, I broke down each offensive position and determined which areas have gotten better and which have not. The results were favorable.
Today, I'm going to look at the defense. We all know this is the area where the Cowboys have struggled the most in what seems like forever, but how do they stack up compared to last season? Let's take a look.
DEFENSIVE END = slightly better
Here's why: This premise is mostly based on a breakout season for Randy Gregory. Whether it's a more relaxed league drug policy or the hope that Dan Quinn utilizes him correctly, there's a lot to be excited about when it comes to Gregory. The defense did lose Aldon Smith to free agency, but honestly, I feel better about the upside of Gregory over Smith at this point. There's also the hope that improved coaching and proper utilization of other defensive linemen pieces can lessen the likeliness of DeMarcus Lawrence seeing double teams. Tank is quietly one of the best players on this team, but doesn't always get the recognition he deserves. Make no mistake about it, his disruption along the line is very real.
Depth wise, there is still a lot lacking, but the same was true last season. Everson Griffin really never manifested into what the team hoped for when they signed him, so there really is nowhere to go but up with this group. Dallas did sign Terrel Basham this offseason to be a rotational guy. They also have Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae, who we hope can show some degree of improvement this year. They also drafted Chauncey Golston in the third round this year, so hopefully this unit shows some promise while providing a slight upgrade over last season.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE = slightly better
Here's why: This group gets the "slightly better" label for two reasons - one of the youngsters will show some improvement, and one of the many nose tackle darts will stick. Sure, It's frustrating to watch this team go through offseason after offseason and do very little to help their interior defensive line, but in the process they've collected quite a few young prospects. Last season, the team tried to mitigate their problems by signing two former Pro Bowlers in free agency in Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. Unfortunately, McCoy got hurt in training camp and Poe was just terrible. Both players were released by the Cowboys before the end of October.
This year, it's hard to know exactly how the defensive tackle pecking order will turn out. There are a lot of promising young players starting with Trysten Hill who was finally showing us something before being lost for the year in Week 5. Second-year player Neville Gallimore and rookie Osa Odighizuwa will all be fighting for snaps. It's hard not to think that at least one of these guys will step up and emerge as a viable contributor this year.
They also have some nose tackle options in free agents Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins as well as rookie draft pick Quinton Bohanna Fanna Fo-Fanna (he goes by Bohanna for short), but none of those players offer the team much of an upgrade from Antwaun Woods. It's almost a push, but I give it just a smidgen of an upgrade.
LINEBACKER = much better
Here's why: If first you don't succeed, sign, draft, and draft some more linebackers to help out. And that's what this Cowboys team did this offseason. The disappointing performances of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith were coupled by poor coaching and poor play. The Cowboys decided not to wait around to see which factor was the biggest failure as they've revamped both. Dan Quinn is in as hopefully that reduces those moments where the linebackers are completely lost in what they're supposed to be doing. The team also added Keanu Neal in free agency, who is normally a strong safety, but was brought to Dallas to help the linebacker position. Dallas also added two fast linebackers in the draft in Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox. While it's unclear how this group will shape out, rest assure - this team has a plethora of options.
The Cowboys lost Sean Lee (retirement) and Joe Thomas (free agency), but the changes in coaching and new bodies bring a lot of reasons to see improvements with this group in 2021.
CORNERBACK = slightly worse
Here's why: The Cowboys cornerback position group wasn't in great shape as it was last year as they were mediocre at best, so it's not very comforting to see things not getting better this year. While nobody appears to be losing any sleep about losing starter Chidobe Awuzie in free agency this year, it's not going to be easy to just replace him. The Cowboys drafted not one, not two, but three cornerbacks, starting with second-round pick Kelvin Joseph. It might take him a bit to get up to speed, but hopefully by midseason he can slide into a starting cornerback spot opposite Trevon Diggs. The team also loves third-round pick Nahshon Wright. While he had many of us scratching our heads on draft day, he's already showing in camp why the scouts were so high on him. Israel Mukuamu was drafted in the sixth round, but Day 3 picks usually have an uphill battle to make the team as he's most likely to be headed for the practice squad.
The Cowboys did re-sign Jourdan Lewis who is a serviceable slot corner. Veteran Anthony Brown is still around and should challenge Lewis for the slot spot once Brown's bridge services on the outside are completed and Joseph is ready to go. Hopefully, in the long run things do improve as they do have a lot of young players who will eventually develop, but don't expect immediate dividends. There will be some definite growing pains this season.
SAFETY = slightly better
Here's why: Like the defensive line groups mentioned earlier, this unit doesn't offer a lot of reasons why things will be better, but at the same time, it just wasn't very strong in the first place. Every little bit helps. The combo of a true free safety in Damontae Kazee with the continued development of Donovan Wilson gives us reason to believe there could be a small upgrade at this position. While the addition of Neal is more for the linebacker spot, his hybrid ability to play strong safety gives the team a legit run stopper in the right personnel group.
The team is still missing a geniune ball-hawking safety talent. Xavier Woods left in free agency, but his coverage ceiling wasn't very high to begin with so the addition of Kazee should help in that area. Maybe one day in the future this team will address this position more seriously, but in the meantime they should still have a similar if not slightly better safety group.