There are plenty of question marks surrounding the Dallas Cowboys defense as the 2017 season steadily approaches.
To what extent will Jaylon Smith be able to recapture his pre-injury form and how much will the team be able to count on him?
How quickly will the rookies in the secondary be able to acclimate to the NFL, and how long will it take to acclimate so many new faces at cornerback and safety?
After playing only 32 out of 48 games over three seasons can Demarcus Lawrence stay on the field and avoid either injury or suspension? And can he regain his 2015 form when he posted eight sacks compared to just two in 2014 and 2016 combined?
Can rookie Taco Charlton earn a starting role?
Will Terrell McClain be replaced by Cedric Thornton, Stephen Paea, or perhaps Tyrone Crawford in the starting lineup?
The uncertainty is endless, and for the casual observer that may be a significant cause for concern, but if you look closer this is a roster with a higher ceiling than any Marinelli-led defense since 2014.
Starting with the defensive line you have several young players who were productive in 2016 and who should only improve come 2017. Maliek Collins posted five sacks as a rookie and played more snaps than any other defensive lineman, there is every reason to expect improvement as we move into his second season. After being benched midway through the year Benson Mayowa returned with a vengeance, posting four sacks in December alone. He eventually finished the year as the team leader with six, and only in his first year in Dallas. Then of course there’s David Irving who flashed brilliance at times and seemed destined for a breakout year in 2017 until he was suspended for the first four games a couple weeks ago.
Beyond that you have Demarcus Lawrence who you have to imagine will be motivated to bounce back in a contract year after a terrible 2016. It won’t take much for him to give the team more than he did last season when he posted a grand total of one sack and was mostly ineffective. Add in Taco Charlton, the highest draft pick the Cowboys have invested in a front seven player in a decade, and you start to see the makings of a deep group that gives the team plenty of options.
The 1-technique spot is probably the weakest along the line, although there are two players in Thornton and Paea who can man the position that have plenty of starting experience. When you consider that Terrell McClain played just under 45% of the snaps last season, that Thornton should improve in his second year with the team, and that Paea already has several years of experience playing under Marinelli, there should be confidence that the team can at least get by here.
And I haven’t even mentioned the line’s fail safe, Tyrone Crawford, who can plug in at either left defensive end or along the interior if things go wrong with Irving, Thornton, Paea, or Lawrence. He won’t be spectacular but he can hold the fort and plug any holes in the dike.
This group is a far cry from the days where Jeremy Mincey, Nick Hayden, and Jack Crawford were in the top three or four in snaps played on the year for the defensive line.
As far as the linebackers go, the 2017 story will come down to one person and one person alone, Jaylon Smith. If he is able to return anywhere near his pre-injury form and play somewhere around 60%-70% of the snaps then the duo of Smith and Sean Lee could be one of the best in the league. Even if that doesn’t happen the team has respectable depth in the form of fourth-year player Anthony Hitchens and third-year Damien Wilson, both should be well-versed in the system at this point and ready to stabilize the position next to Lee if need be. As long as Lee is healthy this unit should at least be able to reproduce their 2016 performance, while there is the potential for exponentially more depending on Smith’s availability.
The secondary is probably the biggest question mark due to the sheer number of new faces. On the surface, the team lost four key contributors in Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox. However, if you look closer at the cornerback position in 2016 you’ll notice that very rarely did the team ever have all four corners (Carr, Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, and Anthony Brown) healthy, on the field together, and playing at full speed. Most of the season was spent playing only three of those four heavy snaps due to various reasons, and very rarely were all four relied upon to contribute in a single game.
With the additions of Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis, to go along with what should be an improved Anthony Brown going into his second year and Scandrick now two years removed from his ACL injury, there is an argument that this unit is actually better and deeper than it was last year. There may be growing pains early on with the rookies but as the year goes it should become obvious that the 2017 group is better than previous iterations.
The only position group that gives me pause is safety. You know what you’re getting from Byron Jones, and there is still room for improvement going into his third season. Beyond that though there are plenty of question marks and not a lot that can be banked on. Jeff Heath has been around for a few years so he should be able to do a reasonable job but there is a reason that Barry Church was the entrenched starter for years, even if he was only an average to above average player. There is also a reason that J.J. Wilcox played more than double Heath’s snaps (555 to 243) despite missing a few games last year and only playing in five or six DB formations.
Xavier Woods has plenty of potential but it usually takes time for safeties to adjust to the mental side of the game and expecting him to play 75%+ snaps on the year seems a bit much. Aside from him you have Robert Blanton, who is mostly a Just A Guy, and Kavon Frazier is in the same boat as Woods, although with an extra year of experience and probably less natural talent.
The wild card here will be Awuzie who has experience playing safety in college and could be moved around in formations that call for six defensive backs as something of a de facto third safety behind Jones and Heath.
Despite the safety position you still have to feel good about the upside elsewhere. There will be growing pains with all the new faces, young players, and currently undefined roles, but there is undoubtedly more potential and depth along the defensive line, at linebacker, and cornerback than there was at any point between 2014-2016.
Marinelli has shown that he can put together a competitive group with average at best talent, finishing 15th, 16th, and 5th in points allowed in 2014, 2015, and 2016, even without the team’s usual offensive firepower in 2015. There is every reason to believe that this group should at least be on the level of those other groups, but with a much higher ceiling. It just might take a little extra time for them to reach it.