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Looking Ahead By Looking Back: Where Will Cowboys Churn The Roster On Defense?

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Jason Garrett's mantra is to always get better. For the moment we leave behind a turbulent season and focus on the future by looking at the past. How and where can the Dallas Cowboys improve? Part I: the defense.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

2015 has been a painful season for Dallas Cowboys fans. The team has experienced all kinds of hope and all kinds of catastrophe. The team soldiers on, as we have come to expect from a Garrett-led group. Meanwhile, we as fans have the luxury of being less narrow in our approach and can begin to look for ways to get better next year. Obviously, the team will take all of our suggestions into careful consideration as crowdsourcing is the latest thing and I fully expect them to do exactly what we want, as they have recently in drafting replacements for Romo and spending a premium pick on a RB this year (you know what font to use there, right?)

My first look will be at the Dallas defense. While there has been a glaring lack of big plays (namely sacks and turnovers) the defense has actually been quite good. They are fifth in passing and fifth overall. This is odd as they are completely middle of the road in almost all other stats (14th-17th in almost every category you can think of) aside from 3rd down percentage, in which they are tenth. They are, however, quite good at keeping teams out of the end zone despite their dead-average 15th rank in points per game. When you consider the number of pick-sixes, short fields resulting from turnovers, and special teams failures, giving up 23 points per game is pretty good. A little better offensive play could easily make this defense a top 10 or even top 3 scoring defense, as there is very little point spread between 10th and 3rd place.

But that lack of big plays has been huge. And it's not just a lack of sacks or turnovers, but additionally the defense has collapsed many times this year just when the team needed it most. The latter must change even more than the former. While many have speculated that a better ball control offense will improve this greatly, there's not much way to quantify that, and such statements are exactly as realistic as saying that Romo wouldn't have hurt his collarbone if DeMarco Murray were still here. Back on topic, however, the areas for improvement are fairly obvious. So let's take a look group by group. (the following opinions are solely my own, I am well aware that many will disagree)

Defensive Line:

Old hands (age 29+) - Nick Hayden continues to be the guy he has always been: a JAG who can eat up snaps but lacks the athleticism to make plays. Jeremy Mincey also continues to be who he has been: a very underrated player on the edge.

Heart of the roster(age  26-27) - Greg Hardy has tailed off after a fast start. Tyrone Crawford has been statistically disappointing but continues to show a lot of disruptive ability. He simply hasn't made the leap many expected him to. Jack Crawford has been a very nice rotational player.

Young guns (age 25 or less) - Demarcus Lawrence is developing into the player we had hoped he would be. Randy Gregory has shown good potential and a very fast rush, but is still learning the NFL game. David Irving is looking like another terrific Will McClay diamond in the rough.

Verdict: Mincey and Hayden might both be targets for replacement because of age alone, and people have been calling for a Hayden replacement for years. Both are pending free agents. I think Hardy will not be worth the money he will command and I like what Gregory is showing. Tyrone Crawford is here for the long haul and still has the physical abilities that had us all excited. Jack Crawford will remain good depth and should be a cheap re-signing. Despite the lack of sacks, the line play has been pretty good and I think we won't see a lot of changeover here.

Linebackers:

Old hands - Sean Lee is playing like a man possessed. Without question one of the finest linebackers in the league.

Heart of the roster - Rolando McClain is beginning to play like we had hoped he would this year. Kyle Wilber continues to be good in rotation and special teams roles. Andrew Gachkar has been good on special teams but not as a good a depth player as we had hoped.

Young guns - Anthony Hitchens continues to be solid in limited snaps. Mark Nzeocha and Damien Wilson are making little impact as rookies.

Verdict: Rolando McClain has earned a new contract and I believe he'll be back. Wilber is questionable. As a free agent this year, he may get some money elsewhere, but if he's willing to return as inexpensive depth and teams play, I think Dallas will bring him back. Gachkar may or may not be worth the $1.3m they could save by cutting him but I don't think that decision will keep anyone up regardless of what Dallas chooses. I could definitely see Dallas bringing in someone to compete with Hitchens and Wilson to take over when Lee and/or McClain move on.

Safeties:

Old hands - there aren't any.

Heart of the roster - Barry Church has had some very rough moments this year, but has lately played more like the free-roaming, in-the-box safety they paid him $2.5million to be. Danny McCray was strictly a special teams hire and has been disappointing, particularly in that his getting blown out of his lane probably directly cost Dallas the second game against the New York Giants.

Young guns - Both J. J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath have taken their lumps this year from fans, as they always do, but both have been much better than most people give them credit for. They have both been passable NFL safeties. Do they take bad angles from time to time? yes they do. So does virtually every NFL safety out there. Only 9 teams have given up fewer 40+ yard passing plays, and Dallas is squarely middle of the pack when it comes to 20+ yard pass plays. The run has been even better. Only five teams have given up fewer 20 yard runs than Dallas. Only the Broncos and Seahawks have given up fewer passing TDs.

Verdict: You simply don't rank highly in those categories if your safety play "sucks". While we'd like the safeties to have had more splash plays, they are not the weakness many perceive them to be. McCray is, I believe, gone. Heath is also a free agent, but I believe Dallas will bring him back as he continues to develop and is earning more snaps on a regular basis. He also leads the team in interceptions thanks to Jameis Winston. Look for a later round draft pick or possibly an undrafted free agent rookie to take the place of McCray.

Cornerback:

Old hands - Brandon Carr has been the guy he has always been. Big, physical, has trouble carrying receivers horizontally. A solid but over priced player.

Heart of the roster - There are none in this category.

Young guns -  Tyler Patmon continues to earn playing time and looks like a nice find. Morris Claiborne and Byron Jones have each, at times, played extremely well.  Claiborne tends to be a bit of a flag magnet, however.  Deji Olatoye has actually taken some snaps and has not yet been posterized so that would seem a positive development.

Verdict:  With Orlando Scandrick coming back, Jones and Claiborne both playing well, and Patmon being solid depth, I would expect Dallas to let Brandon Carr go and sign Morris Claiborne to a fairly hefty contract, but one that's merely standard for a starting NFL corner. I think Claiborne is the better player and I think he can be had for less than the $10million a year Brandon Carr earns. I would expect Dallas to address this position in the draft wherever they think they have value. As the saying goes, "you can never have too many cornerbacks."

Dallas could go a lot of directions in this draft. They have real breadth on defense, not just depth. The roster is packed with solid players but they are lacking in playmaking stars. If they see someone anywhere in the draft who they think will develop into one, expect them to pounce.

Who is your favorite up and coming defensive playmaker?