By letting the likes of Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox all walk in free agency; the Cowboys seem primed to revamp the entire backside of their defense. Looking at the quality of defensive backs in this draft class, can you really blame them?
If you listen to our man Landon McCool’s BTB podcast, he laid out a pretty interesting but plausible theory on the matter. His thoughts are that the Cowboys are finally going to get back to a zone-based secondary to complement Rod Marinelli’s defensive scheme.
If you remember, Marinelli inherited the press man corners in Carr and Claiborne. Both of those guys were brought to Dallas in the fizzled out Rob Ryan defense. Church and Wilcox both fit the profile of strong safeties but again both could be replaced for better fits for the Hot Rod. Then, if you look at the defensive backs left on the roster, you see guys that are comfortable playing zone. Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Nolan Carroll, Jeff Heath, and Kavon Frazier all have more comfort there than the recently departed.
Schematically speaking, Marinelli’s defenses have been historically better when he’s got fresh guys rushing the passer, linebacker clogging passing lanes, and patient but opportunistic defensive back waiting to pounce. You can think back to guys like Charles “Peanut” Tillman, Chris Harris, Ronde Barber, and Brian Kelly who have fit the mold of that type of defensive back.
The truth is that Marinelli’s defenses have usually been predicated on creating pressure and taking the ball away. Though not perfect, the Cowboys’ pass rush improved in 2016 to 13th in sacks (36). The Cowboys had 20 takeaways in 2016 which was better than the 11 they had the previous year. However, the only had nine interceptions, making them 27th in the NFL at picking a pass off. Most of their takeaways came from forced fumbles.
The reality is that Carr had one interception in the past three seasons. Claiborne had four for his career which is not what you expect from a sixth-overall pick. Barry Church cost too much and Dallas didn’t seem interested at all in keeping Wilcox. Consider that the deals that Claiborne and Carr signed with their new teams weren’t overly expensive and you can say that the Cowboys weren’t too bothered by letting them go. They’ve wanted to upgrade their secondary for a while and now they get that opportunity.
It’s been discussed over and over again but the theme to this year’s draft is that if you need some defensive backs, you’re in luck. This year’s class will offer up depth at that position like we’ve never seen before. Especially at the cornerback position, where it’s likely, teams will find starters well into the fourth round according to Bryan Broaddus and Dane Brugler. It only seems natural that teams like the Cowboys can double-dip if they want to and that’s the likely reason for this “exodus”.
This is one year where picking at 28 is not as bad as usual, as my colleague Tom Ryle has pointed out. Typically, when picking this far down, you’re looking at the best of the second-round talents but Dallas has a shot here to get a guy with a true first-round grade. It’ll be interesting to see if they wait on a defensive back due to that aforementioned depth. With that said, you can expect the Cowboys to be heavily focused on re-tooling the defense.
This was the perfect year to get out from under the mediocrity and as harsh as it sounds that’s a compliment for this defense in the past several years. They have vastly overachieved in many circumstances but overall, the Cowboys’ Achilles heel since 2013 has been their defensive struggles. When push came to shove, this defense wasn’t able to stop Aaron Rodgers in 2014 and they were equally inept in 2016. Dallas didn’t feel like anyone in their secondary was irreplaceable.
Dallas’ draft strategies over the last few years have worked. In fact, the last “bust” they had in the first round? Try Morris Claiborne of 2012, the man that missed 33 of 80 games and is off to the Jets on a one-year deal worth $5 million. It’s time to move past what the Cowboys have lost and look at what they can potentially gain. If this is a class whose strength is at defensive back, you can bet that the Cowboys will play to the strengths. This is the team that said “yes, we most certainly can draft three first-round talents on the offensive line. In fact, we’ll do you one better and sign the most coveted undrafted free agent too in La’el Collins.”
Whether the Cowboys decide to start the reloading process in the first round or not, you can be sure that with all that talk about corners and safeties, Dallas may do both. All of their moves up to this point suggest that defense is the focus and secondary may be the primary target. At least we know that they have seen their weaknesses and want to rectify them. What a wonderful time of year draft season is, you know?