There is a lot of high praise that has been thrown the way of the Dallas Cowboys in the week following the NFL Draft. The Cowboys added plenty of defensive talent to the mix and that alone was going to gain some positive reviews. What’s more interesting though is how the Cowboys came about to add these talents and how they plan to construct the roster around what they already have. After listening to the insight that Director of Scouting Will McClay gave on “The Break” this week, the picture became even clearer that the Cowboys’ valued versatility and it weighed heavily in their selections.
If you think about it, they may deserve a little more credit than we’ve already given them for bucking a few trends to achieve their ultimate vision. It doesn’t get talked about all that much but this is a flexible coaching staff. Rod Marinelli, for instance, has shown that he can adapt to the ever-changing NFL landscape. The majority of his success in the league came with the Bears and Buccaneers where he deployed a Tampa 2 scheme that seemed a bit stale when the Cowboys attempted it with Monte Kiffin as the coordinator. Yet, once Kiffin was relieved and Marinelli was promoted, the scheme began to evolve. Frankly, Marinelli was a better evaluator of the talent he had and knew how to put them in better positions to succeed. Now, he’s getting a whole new batch of versatile talent to pair with his up-and-coming roster.
This defense hasn’t been All-World but they have been improving. Some have called for the face-lift of the defense but Dallas has been trying to improve the roster for a while. In fact, since the 2014 NFL Draft (Marinelli’s first at defensive coordinator), the Cowboys have made 35 draft picks and 24 of them have been on the defense. In 2016, the Cowboys showed a lot of improvement in key areas on defense. They were the best rushing defense (83.5 YPG from 120.9 in 2015), they had a Top-5 finish in scoring defense (19.1 PPG allowed), and they had the most sacks of any team over the last month of the season. They were coming along with the emergence of youthful guys like David Irving, Maliek Collins, and Anthony Brown.
The incredible draft class of 2016 is hard to replicate and we’ve still not seen its full capabilities but the similarities are there with this year’s draft haul. That aforementioned versatility was the Cowboys’ main focus this offseason and they did a marvelous job in trying to achieve it. The NFL is always evolving and offenses are the primary focus as it’s become so much harder to be a consistent defense. Where in the past, thresholds of height and other dimensions have played huge roles in what teams will want, these teams have learned to compromise to these changes in the league.
The spread offense has become more prevalent and the smaller, shifty receivers have found their niche in the NFL. It all starts in college with programs now coveting the athleticism and versatility of players to fit multiple roles. The Cowboys tweaked their strategy when they selected cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Awuzie is listed at 6 foot, but is a hair under that, but he still showed up all over Colorado’s defense. He played significant snaps as an outside corner, in the nickel, dime, and even at safety. His athleticism and versatility as an all-around solid defender allowed Colorado to become one of the best secondaries in college football. Lewis (5’ 10”) was mainly used as a slot/ nickel corner and quickly became one of the nation’s best.
Dallas now gets the opportunity to pair those guys with other standout athletes like Byron Jones and Anthony Brown who also fit the bill in multiple roles.
Taco Charlton is another example. He’s a player who got snaps at different spots along Michigan’s defensive line. He can line up at either defensive end position, and he can kick inside when the defense is in nickel or dime formations.
Versatility is where the Dallas Cowboys will become dangerous as a defense. The ability to move players around like strategic game pieces will allow the Cowboys to defend against even the best of NFL offenses. It also helps that they have to go against one of the most formidable attacks during practice every week. Marinelli has always found ways to get the best out of his talent but it’s exciting to see the level of that talent increased. As the defensive players earn their seasoning, it’ll increase those trust levels to try out some new wrinkles.
This is a defense that is very young and for the most part, it’s a homegrown defense. These guys will all be cultivated together to carve out their own NFL paths with growing pains and all. All of that position flexibility from the pass rush to the entire secondary, linebackers included, will only add to the arsenal of Rod Marinelli. It certainly won’t be a complete unit from the jump but as the season progresses so will this young defense. Though we always are told to temper the excitement, it’s growing increasingly harder by the day. Looking back on the last few years of the Cowboys’ draft processes, it’s just really cool (for lack of a better word) to see their plans take shape. The Dallas Cowboys want a young, fast, relentless, and above all versatile defense that gives nightmares to opposing offensive coordinators. Right now, the moves they have made move them closer to that goal.