The Dallas Cowboys defense entered the 2016 season last year with a veteran secondary and a superstar linebacker, but with known weaknesses around the defensive line and in coverage. Problems over the course of the 2016 season prompted the Cowboys to change, and hopefully improve, their defense going into the 2017 season. Using free agency and the draft, the Cowboys have re-made large parts of the defense. Let's take a look at the roster differences between this year and last, with special notice to all of the departed players and newcomers.
Top 8: Demarcus Lawrence, Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, David Irving, Terrell Mclain, Jack Crawford, Cedric Thornton, Benson Mayowa
Starters: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber
Backups: Justin Durant, Damien WIlson, Andrew Gachkar
Cornerback: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick
Safety: Barry Church, Byron Jones
Backups: Jeff Heath, Anthony Brown, JJ Wilcox and Kavon Frazier
Clearly, the 2016 roster benefited from outstanding coaching from Rod Marinelli, a string of great performances by David Irving and the superstar play from Sean Lee. As has been well documented, the Cowboys strategically did not sign a series of players in the secondary during free agency because they anticipated an abundance of talent at the position throughout the draft. Their strategy came to fruition and worked like a charm.
Top 8: Taco Charlton, Demarcus Lawrence, Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, David Irving, Cedric Thornton, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper
Reserves: Stephen Paea, Damontre Moore
Starters: Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Anthony Hitchens
Backups: Damien Wilson, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha
Cornerback: Chidobe Awuzie, Orlando Scandrick, Nolan Carroll, Anthony Brown
Safety: Byron Jones and Xavier Woods
Backups: Jourdan Lewis, Marquez White, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier
While the linebacker position seems to be the most obvious strength on the team with Sean Lee and a healthy Jaylon Smith, the defensive line and secondary can no longer be considered huge weaknesses. The Cowboys strengthened their defensive line with Taco Charlton who has been compared to Justin Tuck, Chandler Jones or Carlos Dunlap. Additionally, the secondary got much needed boosts in the form of pure tackler Chidobe Awuzie, playmaker Jourdan Lewis, and potential star in Xavier Woods. The defense suddenly has options which bodes well as the Cowboys will face many All Pro quarterbacks this year.
The other piece to consider for this Dallas defense is the exceptional youth on this side of the ball. Sean Lee checks in as the veteran of the group at 31 years old. The defensive line is sprinkled with rookies and second-year players while the secondary boasts a series of youngsters.
As this season plays out, look for the Cowboys to be ruthless with their rotations. I expect the defensive line to rotate multiple times a game to provide fresh legs but also to ensure that the competitive drive does not wane. The secondary will be a position group to watch closely because the emergence of Anthony Brown last year makes him a solid cornerback. Similarly, Jourdan Lewis can play nickel cornerback and expect Xavier Woods to immediately compete with Jeff Heath for the starting safety gig alongside Byron Jones.
In just a matter of 12 months, the weaker side of the team is younger, stronger and healthier, which sets Dallas up for another season of success.