Early in the offseason, the Cowboys told fans that the emphasis of the offseason was to upgrade the defense. But then they let seven defensive players walk in free agency (Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Terrell McClain, Jack Crawford, Ryan Davis) who had accounted for 33% of all defensive snaps and 37% of all starts on defense in 2016.
And when the Cowboys only made cursory replacements in free agency with players like Nolan Carroll, Robert Blanton, or Stephen Paea, lots of folks jumped on the Dallas-lost-everything-in-free-agency train, and the battle cry of the disenfranchised quickly turned from "the defense is holding the team back, Dallas needs to upgrade” to “OMG, how could Jerry Jones let those defensive players walk,” as our own Dave Halprin pointed out in March.
Stephen Jones explained that the Cowboys had their eyes firmly on the draft, because the Cowboys weren't going to get any better on defense "if we just keep paying the guys we got.”
Again, Jones said the defensive heavy draft will offer opportunities to upgrade. It was all part of the team’s consideration as it approached free agency.
“People say our biggest issue and the thing that keeps us from winning a championship is the lack of (defense),” Jones said. “We didn’t have the players to be a great defense.
“Hopefully we can address that (in the draft). Now I am not going to say we are going to sit here and pick for need. But I will say before we started free agency we took a snapshot of the draft and knew that it was deep in the defensive line, deep in the secondary. We knew that was the ability to really improve ourselves there.”
And when the Cowboys emerged from the draft with seven of nine picks made on defense, the mood lightened considerably and outlook for the 2017 season improved.
So much so that Pro Football Focus projects the Cowboys as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, despite questions about how long the new secondary will need to get up to speed.
2. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
After a disappointing exit from the playoffs, the Cowboys in some senses took a step back in the offseason. Four defensive backs who had overall grades above 75 in 2016 are now on different rosters, and it will likely take a year or two for the defensive backs they drafted to replace them to be fully up to speed. What is working in their favor is they had a lot of key contributors in 2016 who were rookies and should step their game up. Even outside of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, cornerback Anthony Brown and defensive tackle Maliek Collins made strides as the season went on. As of Week 12, Collins had a pass-rushing productivity of 3.57, but from Week 13 on that was up to 8.16.
Offseason projections and rankings mean very little when teams haven't played a single snap of competitive football, but it's nice to see that the optimism many fans have for the Cowboys this year is not just something bred of their fandom, but is something more impartial observers see as well.
Of course, that No. 2 seed could be a lot harder to achieve than it looks on paper. PFF projects the Falcons as the No. 1 seed with a 12-4 record, but then has Cowboys, Packers, Cardinals, and Seahawks all bunched pretty close together with 10-6 records. That No. 2 seed may be a lot more tightly contested than the Cowboys would like.