The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos rode an impressive number-one ranked defense to the highest of peaks in the NFL landscape. Their offense led by the now retired Peyton Manning, who had a TD-INT ratio of 9-17, was ranked 16th overall in the league. The 2009 New Orleans Saints ranked number one in total offense delivered a championship while also sporting the 25th ranked defense. It just goes to show, to rip-off a Broaddus phrase, the NFL is a Baskin Robbins' league, pick your flavor. You don't have to have both a stellar offense and stifling defense to win the big crown.
As much as Cowboys' fans would love to have both, they must realize that this team's identity lies within the five big uglies that engineer the league's best offensive line. They are a power football team that runs the ball, controls the clock, but has the offensive firepower to break defenses down and never stop hitting. That's what comes with having big playmakers like Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and the Cole Beasley's of the world. They are truly capable of running it down your throats but don't you dare neglect the outside and underneath weapons because that would be ill-advised.
So they're an offensive team, we've known this for quite some time, but good teams can adapt to their situation. The New England Patriots know a thing or two about changing their form to meet their assets. However, will the Cowboys defense be so bad that it will destroy what the offense is doing? Let's examine the starting defensive lineup that they plan on rolling out week one and see for ourselves:
Byron Jones, FS
Finally, the Cowboys have an athletic freak in the secondary and he plays a vital role in the scheme that Marinelli runs. He was learning the ropes as a freshman in the NFL but managed to place fifth in tackles with 47 solos. In his second-year, there will be no asking Jones to play corner, they think he's a safety and will keep him there. As the last line of defense, he will provide shade for the outside corners and assistance in lining the secondary up correctly. It goes without saying that having a player with his knowledge of the game is only going to spell good things for the defense. This guy is squarely on the breakout alert button, there doesn't seem to be anything he can't do.
Barry Church, SS
Are there better safeties in the league? Absolutely, but Church has been a really solid player for this team and was second in tackles with 117 (14th in NFL) but first in solo tackles at 78. He's at his best when he's down there in the box and defending the run. Church has never been the playmaker of a guy like John Lynch was, but he is assignment sound and has been a solid leader in the clubhouse for years.
Brandon Carr, CB
I hear the groans now but it's always been about money versus production. In the past two seasons, Carr hasn't produced a single interception. He did manage to place himself third in tackles on the team with 60 solos as well help a team become fifth is passing yards allowed (although teams ran the ball on the Cowboys more because they could). He is one year older but he also reduced his salary to stay a Cowboy and isn't exactly the worst cornerback in the league. He doesn't sulk but rather gets back in there even if he is posterized sometimes. This season he'll be moved back to the right side where he's had the majority of his success. Who knows if that matters all that much, but there isn't anyone available taking his job, that is a fact.
Orlando Scandrick, CB
When Scandy is greenlit, it's going to be an exciting thing for this defense. He's been the best cornerback on this team for a while and was devastated to not be helping out his teammates in 2015. His mere presence at OTAs had Gil Brandt recognizing the giddiness of his teammates. They know what he's about and his abilities not only in the slot but also covering the Odell Beckham's of the league. He's integral to the success of the defense in 2016.
Morris Claiborne, CB
He finally came to a point of showing himself to be an average NFL starting cornerback last season. He's back on a one-year deal but it's time we stop hoping for the sixth-overall pick. At this point, if he elevates his play into becoming better than average that'll be good enough for him to sign elsewhere. If he exceeds all those expectations then, of course, the Cowboys would be jumping for joy. He's finally in his first full offseason without having to recover from any injury. If he continues to progress and gain confidence, he just may surprise us all.
Sean Lee, WLB
Lee is coming off a season where he didn't end up on IR and made his first Pro Bowl appearance. Sean Lee was PFF's third-ranked linebacker and led the team in total tackles at 128. He had a 92.3 grade by PFF standards and was outstanding for the Cowboys. Now, he's returning for his second year in a position that he excelled at. All he has to do is continue to maintain good health and he'll be right back at the top of the linebacker class.
Rolando McClain, MLB
Not truly sure what McClain's allergy to offseason work is but I would expect him back when he's supposed to be. It remains to be seen at what level of shape he'll be in. It's time that we stop relying on him to become some A+ student of the game. He's just never going to be that guy, but when the lights come on, he plays and relatively well. Case in point, after being out four weeks with yet another knuckleheaded move, McClain sacks Tom Brady while picking up four tackles and one for loss. He's just a gamer, that's all he's ever going to be. If you can keep him in the fray on gameday, that's what you want. McClain was very solid in 2015 and the hope is that he will be again in 2016.
Anthony Hitchens, SLB
In this defense, SAM isn't really a starting role as they prefer more defensive backs. Still, Hitchens is the man to beat although he has some competition lined up. Hitchens is a see and hit defender that can step in and help wherever he is asked to line up. The Cowboys don't always deploy a SAM backer and he could lose his job should one of Mark Nzeocha, Andrew Gachkar, or Kyle Wilber show to better blitzers. Either way, Hitchens is a smart player and has done a nice job in two seasons with the club.
Jack Crawford, LDE
He's been working in as Tyrone Crawford's backup at defensive tackle, but when the dust clears, I see him getting the first crack at left end unless David Irving is that much better. Crawford had four sacks last season, which would count as his best. He's been a student of the game under Rod Marinelli and has got better every year. There is no reason to think that he can't be good enough to get them through four games before he hops back inside.
Tyrone Crawford, 3T
With the latest injury to rookie Maliek Collins, Crawford doesn't look to be going anywhere. It's crazy to think that Crawford still managed five sacks when he couldn't even bench 225 pounds by the end of the season. He's hoping to pay the Cowboys back for their trust and investment in him. He's a very underrated commodity for the Cowboys' defensive line and knows that he's the man now. The three-tech is so heavily relied upon in Marinelli's vision of a pass rush, Crawford at full-strength should be able to deliver what they need.
Cedric Thornton, 1T
The best acquisition of the offseason other than Ezekiel Elliott is this cat right here. For so long, we've begged for an athletic upgrade over Nick Hayden. Terrell McClain has abilities too but your best ability is availability, something McClain has lacked since coming to Dallas. Thornton can eat up blockers and free up his partners. He's a great run stuffer and should be the perfect complement to Tyrone Crawford.
Benson Mayowa, RDE
Here's a guy that is still unknown but watching Broaddus break down his tape has got to make you feel good about his prospects. He's got speed and bend but his power is in his hands. Like Randy Gregory, Mayowa can get around the edge and use his powerful hands to stun offensive linemen and shed them. He was a guy that they were high on a while ago before Seattle and Oakland swallowed him up. He'll get a four-game stretch to show what he's made of and jump-start his NFL career.
This is by no means an All-World defense that will roll out in week one but it's hardly the worst unit in the league. If the offense is as good as the Cowboys' believe they'll be, this is a defense that is young and hungry. There isn't a reason to write them all off before we've seen them play a down together.