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Cowboys’ Championship Quest: What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Roster? Part 2 - Defense and Special Teams

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In Part 1 of this roster breakdown, we looked at the offense. Now it’s time to look at the defense and special teams specialists.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1 of this breakdown of the Dallas Cowboys roster, we looked at several issues on the offensive side of the ball. How young are they? Who came in through the draft versus free agency or trade? How is Dallas allocating its salary cap among these players? In Part 2, we’re going to look at the much-maligned Cowboys defense.

Who Have the Cowboys Assembled on Defense?

Here is the full list of defensive players on the 2016 roster along with some key data for each player. The table is sortable, just click on the blue column headers to sort.

Cowboys active roster overview 2016, Defense
Position Name Age Source Joined Controlled till 2016 Cap in M$
DE Mayowa, Benson 25 FA 2016 2018 1.8
DE Crawford, Jack 27 FA 2014 2016 1.1
DE Tapper, Charles 23 4th Round 2016 2019 0.6
DE Irving, David 23 FA 2015 2016 0.5
DT Crawford, Tyrone 26 3rd Round 2012 2020 4.4
DT Thornton, Cedric 28 FA 2016 2019 2.3
DT McClain, Terrell 28 FA 2014 2016 1.1
DT Collins, Maliek 21 3rd Round 2016 2019 0.7
LB Lee, Sean 30 2nd Round 2010 2019 6.2
LB Gachkar, Andrew 27 FA 2015 2016 1.9
LB Wilber, Kyle 27 4th Round 2012 2017 1.5
LB Hitchens, Anthony 24 4th Round 2014 2017 0.7
LB Durant, Justin 30 FA 2016 2016 0.7
LB Wilson, Damien 23 4th Round 2015 2018 0.6
LB Nzeocha, Mark 26 7th Round 2015 2018 0.5
CB Carr, Brandon 30 FA 2012 2016 10.2
CB Scandrick, Orlando 29 5th Round 2008 2019 4.8
CB Claiborne, Morris 26 1st Round 2012 2016 2.7
CB Brown, Anthony 22 6th Round 2016 2019 0.5
CB Swanson, Dax 25 FA 2016 2017 0.5
S Church, Barry 28 UDFA 2010 2016 4.8
S Jones, Byron 23 1st Round 2015 2018-19 2.0
S Wilcox, J.J. 25 3rd Round 2013 2016 1.8
S Heath, Jeff 25 UDFA 2013 2019 1.4
S Frazier, Kavon 22 6th Round 2016 2019 0.5

Note: FA means Free Agent. Cap numbers are rounded. Source: spotrac.com.

What do we see looking at this side of the roster?

Follow the Money

One thing that jumps out from this data is where Dallas has spent the most resources on the defensive side of the ball. It’s in the defensive backfield. Is this what you thought before you read this article?

Almost $29 million in cap space is being devoted to the 10 defensive backs on the roster, which is far more than any other position group on offense or defense this year. (The offensive line will pass them by next year.) A big chunk of this is the carryover of Brandon Carr’s contract, which is more than $10 million even after he took a pay cut, but it’s not the only reason.

Note that three defensive backs have bigger cap hits than anyone on the defensive line. The Cowboys have also spent two first-round draft picks on the DBs, one of whom — Mo Claiborne — cost a first- and second-round pick to acquire.

So, unlike on offense, where Dallas has heavily invested in the big boys who play in the trenches, on defense, Dallas has built its current team from the back end first. Is this the best choice?

Side note: had Dallas taken Jalen Ramsey with the first pick instead of Ezekiel Elliott, this resource allocation imbalance would have been even more pronounced.

Suspensions Are Hurting the Defense

On offense, it’s injuries. On defense, it’s suspensions. The roster list above is missing two second-round draft picks and a former first-rounder that Dallas signed as a free agent on the cheap. I’m talking about Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Rolando McClain, or the Cowboys best pass rusher, its speediest end rusher, and a linebacker sturdy enough to stop the run and fast enough to cover. Their absence is sorely missed.

Of course, we expect Lawrence back after four games, and thank goodness, as he made huge strides from his first to his second season.

But it’s a total mystery if or when we’ll see Randy Gregory again. Does he have four-game suspension, or a 10-game suspension, or something else? Leave it to the NFL to make these situations maddening. Most have written Gregory off for the season, but it’s too bad. In the preseason match against Seattle, wouldn’t you have preferred watching Gregory try to chase down Russell Wilson than Ryan Russell? My guess is that Kyle Wilber is going to be used this year to impersonate Gregory when Dallas needs some speed off the edge.

At least Randy Gregory has a locker at the Star, unlike Rolando McClain. Dallas hasn’t cut the other McClain, but they also haven’t rolled out the welcome mat. And why should they given his enigmatic history? He’s likely played his last game in the NFL, but who knows? If he were in shape and motivated, he’d certainly be Dallas’s second-best linebacker (behind Sean Lee), and was a key player on that 2014 defense.

Who’s to blame for this situation? The players themselves are responsible for their actions, but the Dallas personnel department could have made different choices instead of risking draft and cap capital on unstable players.

The Dallas Cowboys Defense is Younger, and Less Experienced

The Cowboys defense is even younger than it’s offense, with an average just under 26 years old. But what’s more critical is that it may be asking too much of some players before they are ready.

Maliek Collins and Charles Tapper are rookies being asked to rotate a lot in an eight-man defensive line, yet Collins only had 13 pre-season snaps, and Tapper had none due to a concealed injury. David Irving and Benson Mayowa also have not played more than a couple hundred snaps in a season. That’s half the defensive line.

At linebacker, Sean Lee is solid, but the depth behind him is untested. Same is true at cornerback behind Carr, Claiborne, and Scandrick, and at safety behind Jones and Church.

On the plus side, the Cowboys young defenders may have real upside as they gain experience. But can the team win in the meantime?

Turnover is Coming

Is Dallas in a decent position to manage turnover on the defensive side? These are the defensive players signed only through the next two years.

2016: Jack Crawford, Terrell McClain, David Irving, Andrew Gachkar, Justin Durant, Brandon Carr, Mo Claiborne, Barry Church, JJ Wilcox

2017: Demarcus Lawrence, Kyle Wilber, Anthony Hitchens, Dax Swanson.

In some respects, turnover on defense may be a good thing, as it will allow Dallas to get out from under some heavy cap hits. $10.2 million for Brandon Carr, $4.75 million for Barry Church, and $1.8 million for everyone’s favorite whipping boy, JJ Wilcox (who has not made it to guaranteed status for 2016 yet).

But Lawrence will have to be re-upped at a higher cap hit, and Dallas will be pretty thin at cornerback if they let both Carr and Claiborne go.

Is This Defense Good Enough for a Championship Run?

This is probably the biggest question, and judging from most commentary on this site and elsewhere, the answer is a firm NO.

I’m not ready to make that call one way or the other.

The 2014 defense was middle of the pack. Sean Lee missed the season. Jeremy Mincey led the team with six sacks. Yet the team was in the playoff game in Green Bay, and might have won if the offense had made a couple more plays (for example, the Murray fumble and the field goal before the half) or the officials called the game differently (the Dez catch).

Turnovers were the difference with that defense, and could be again. The defensive line is younger, with more upside. The defensive backs are deeper. And there is Sean Lee as the key linebacker rather than Rolando McClain. This 2016 unit could be better than the 2014 one.

What About The Specialists?

In this area, the Cowboys are rock solid.

The return game needs more work, however. Neither Lucky Whitehead nor Cole Beasley returned enough punts to qualify on leader boards, but if they had, their return average under six yards per return was pretty bad. Perhaps that’s why Dallas kept Dax Swanson, who had some great punt returns in pre-season.

On kickoffs, Whitehead didn’t have enough to qualify, but his 28.3 yard average would have made him fifth in the NFL if he did.

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What do you think about our defense and special teams? Is the Cowboys defense good enough to allow the offense to carry the team into the postseason and win when it gets there? Can the team go beyond what it achieved in 2014? Can Rod Marinelli coach and fire up these guys into making a run?