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Cowboys' Off-Season: Where Are The Needs On Defense?

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Let's take a look at the defensive depth chart for the Cowboys, to determine what they must address in the various avenues of talent acquisition in the off-season.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For the last several off-seasons, the honorable Rabblerousr (salute!) has examined the Cowboys depth charts at various points in the off-season in order to determine the best course of action for the team as they prepare for the next year. He has graciously encouraged me to carry on this tradition.

Earlier today we looked at the offense, but now we turn our attention to the defense that, after being porous and floating near the bottom of the league for several years, finally put some pieces together in 2014, creating 31 turnovers, which was good for second in the league. The defense performed well for much of 2015 as they continued their progression under Rod Marinelli, but failed to generate the kinds of takeaways and big plays that a team without its two best offensive play-makers would need from its defense to win games.

To understand the current state of the defense, let's first remind ourselves of the depth chart of the team all the way back when they broke camp in Oxnard.

Note: I've included 12 "starters" on this list, as the team plays enough nickel (five defensive backs) that the third cornerback is essentially a starter. I've also included players who the team was projecting as starters but were unavailable in Week 1 due to suspension.

Position Starter Backup Third
RDE Greg Hardy Randy Gregory
UT Tyrone Crawford Jack Crawford
NT Nick Hayden Terrell McClain
LDE Demarcus Lawrence Jeremy Mincey
MIKE Rolando McClain
WILL Sean Lee Andrew Gachkar Damien Wilson
SAM Anthony Hitchens Kyle Wilber
RCB Morris Claiborne
SS Barry Church Danny McCray
FS JJ Wilcox Jeff Heath
LCB Brandon Carr Byron Jones
NICKEL Tyler Patmon Corey White

At first glance this looks like a very solid, and talented group. There are positions of relative strength and weakness, but overall there was plenty to be happy about when looking at this. The only major preseason injury for the team was a late camp knee injury suffered by starting corner back Orlando Scandrick, but the team had established quite a bit of depth in the secondary and appeared primed to overcome that injury.

When we fast-forward to the current state, we see quite a bit of flux, and a great number of question marks.

Position Starter Backup Third
RDE ??? Randy Gregory
UT Tyrone Crawford David Irving
NT ??? Terrell McClain
LDE Demarcus Lawrence Ryan Russell
MIKE ??? Andrew Gachkar
WILL Sean Lee Damien Wilson Mark Nzeocha
SAM Anthony Hitchens
RCB Orlando Scandrick Deji Olatoye
SS Barry Church Jeff Heath
FS Byron Jones JJ Wilcox
LCB Brandon Carr
NICKEL ??? Terrance Mitchell

The first place that stands out on this list is the defensive line, as half the starters among that group are set to become free agents. The right defensive end position is the premier pass rushing position in the Cowboys defense, and also presents the largest question mark perhaps on the entire roster. In 2015 the Cowboys signed controversial free agent Greg Hardy to man that position, but Hardy's season was less productive than anticipated, and presented quite a unique set of off-field challenges for the organization, leaving major uncertainty as to his future (or lack thereof) with the team. In addition to signing Hardy, the Cowboys drafted promising young pass rusher Randy Gregory with their second-round pick to help the pass rush. Unfortunately, a high ankle injury suffered in Week 1 rendered Gregory ineffective in the regular season after he showed encouraging signs in training camp and early in the first game. The importance of a great pass rush on a championship level defense is largely un-debated, and it is likely the Cowboys will pursue some help here.

History says that a vast majority of rookie pass rushers suffer fates similar to Gregory's and Demarcus Lawrence's before him, as each of the Cowboys young rushers failed to produce even a single sack in their respective rookie seasons. In fact, the average rookie defensive lineman will generate fewer than three sacks in their first year, and fewer than four in their second. With this knowledge, the Cowboys should be looking to address the pass rush through free agency, and must be willing to spend premium money to attract a bona fide rusher to do so.

Nick Hayden has been a starter who has provided consistently admirable effort at the nose tackle position, but is one who could and should be upgraded in the off-season. Luckily for the Cowboys, players at that position rarely draw premium contracts as free agents, and this draft class happens to feature a plethora of talent at the defensive tackle position that would fit what the Cowboys want at the nose.

The linebacker position also faces questions as the enigmatic Rolando McClain is set to be a free agent for the second consecutive off-season. Anthony Hitchens has proven to be capable of filling in at Mike, but lacks the ideal size and physical playing style to play there full time. The Cowboys have spent multiple picks on linebackers over the last few years, and could look to do so again as the draft also happens to be deep at the linebacker position.

The secondary could become an even greater numbers problem as the off-season continues. Morris Claiborne is set to be a free agent, and Brandon Carr will have a massive $13.8 million cap number in 2016 and has not played anywhere close to the standard set by that cap cost. This could mean the Cowboys could be without both of their week one starters from 2015 by the time camp rolls around in 2016. Orlando Scandrick will be back, but with the team seeming to want Byron Jones to focus on playing safety, the Cowboys will likely go into free agency with only one true NFL starting quality corner on the roster. This position will likely require attention through multiple avenues, as it's unlikely they could acquire two corners in the draft who are both ready to play significant snaps. It is plausible that the Cowboys could spend what may be considered premium money at corner, and go on to spend the fourth overall pick on a defensive back as well.