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The sum of the parts: How the Cowboys defense will be better in 2017

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Everyone is worried about the Cowboys defense, but hey - what’s new?

Dallas Cowboys v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It seems like every new season brings out the same story line in Dallas where fans across the nation will trumpet to all those that will listen - the Cowboys defense is terrible. It all started in 2013 when the team allowed 6,645 yards, ranking them the third worst in NFL history. Believe it or not, the Cowboys would still manage to win eight games that year and it would have been more had the defense not blown some pretty sizable leads. Once something like that happens, it’s hard to shake that perception.

The following season was expected to be even worse. The team lost their only two legitimate pass rushers, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. Star linebacker, Sean Lee, was injured in training camp and was lost for the season. And their best cornerback, Orlando Scandrick, was suspended for the first four games of the season. Many people were projecting the Cowboys to win around six games that year.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, they won 12 regular season games as well as a playoff game. They were led by a dominant rushing attack featuring the league’s leading rusher and a defense that was second in the league in taking the ball away.

Last year the Cowboys won 13 regular season games. Once again they were lead by a strong running attack featuring the league’s top rusher (albeit a different RB this time) and a defense that was top five in points allowed. The defense also led the league in fewest rushing yards allowed and had the most sacks they’ve had since 2011. Many fans were pleased with the Cowboys defense, but that feeling faded when the team failed to get past the divisional round in the playoffs - again.

As meaningful as those two playoff seasons were, the real gem of information came from the Cowboys four-win season in 2015. In the middle of two solid defensive seasons, all of a sudden they were giving up more points, struggling to stop the run, and for the life of them - they couldn’t take the ball away. What big changes happened on defense for things to fall out of whack for one season?

Nothing.

The big changes were on the offensive side of the ball, particularly - the complete ineptness at the quarterback position. When Tony Romo had the offense humming, the Cowboys defense was good enough to help them win games. When he went down, the wheels came completely off and the team crashed hard. Then, when they got great quarterback play again, this time from Dak Prescott, the defense rebounded.

Now before you get too disgruntled, this isn’t going to be another piece about how the Cowboys awesome offense will hide their defensive deficiencies and make them look better than they really are. I think we have all reached the point to where that is a known. However, I’m not wasting an opportunity to reiterate that this offense is going to be spectacular this year. Opponents are going to have to scratch and claw to keep up.

Instead, this is about how the defense is trending up. We can talk about how we lost key veteran players, but nothing about the talent of players like Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne will have me more worried than when the team lost Ware and Hatcher.

The Cowboys entire front office has nightmares about the Aaron Rodgers to Jared Cook completion just like we do. They entered the offseason understanding this team needs to get better and aren’t going to just be complacent and let things be as they may. This team is serious when it comes to making improvements, however, it just doesn’t come across that way because fans get too caught up in who’s coming and who’s going. Don’t get me wrong, the new imports on the defensive side this offseason are plentiful. The team drafted seven new players and added four free agents.

While the new adds will provide the Cowboys a little help, the bigger impact will come from the growth of the players already on the roster. Good scouting brings potential to Dallas, but it’s good coaching that transfers that potential to quality football players. Just take a look at how many players will be on the rise this year.

The Cowboys draft All Pro’s in the first round. It’s what they do. So when we see a player like Byron Jones only performing at the “pretty good” level, it’s noticeable. Entering his third season, and second full season at safety, look for Jones to remind everyone why he was a great pick in 2015.

What a great rookie season Anthony Brown had. The bad news is that he’s still young and will have more growing pains ahead of him, but the great news is that he’s only going to get better.

If you were upset that the team drafted Jaylon Smith, that’s fine, but it’s time to put that gripe to rest. The wasted season of 2016 is behind us now. What matters is that he is back and is progressing quite well. It now just becomes a matter of time before the Cowboys have another superstar linebacker on defense.

Smith isn’t the only linebacker that is looking to showcase something great in 2017. Anthony Hitchens is having a great camp and is a player on a mission. And Damien Wilson isn’t all that far behind as he’s been making plays too. Both these guys are fourth-round draft picks that are benefiting from the coaching they are getting. It’s unclear exactly who will take on what roles at linebacker, but the Cowboys have some good pieces in place.

Referring to Jeff Heath as the GOAT is funny because it exemplifies how hyped up this kid is when his on field performance clearly indicates otherwise. Spoiler alert: he’s not the GOAT. But what he is, is another young out-of-nowhere player who has shown that he’s getting better. Heath is learning and his play of the field validates such.

And then there’s the pass rush. The Achilles heel of the Cowboys defense. Now, there is no arguing that things haven’t gone to plan when it comes to revamping this defensive line. The team has had some setbacks. Looking back now, Randy Gregory and Greg Hardy aren’t moves that the front office are proud of. They rolled the dice on a high-upside, low-character player, and they crapped out. But despite those failures, the team keeps going at it. They draft, they coach, they sign, they coach, rinse and repeat. And over time this process has produced a smorgasbord of appetizing options on the line.

If you are not excited about defensive tackles Maliek Collins, you soon will be. He’s only a second-year player, but he’s going to be a force in the middle this season.

David Irving will always be viewed as a plus because he’s already outproduced his cost to the team several times over. But it’s the fascination with what he can become that has us fans really excited. Irving will miss the first four games, but he’s coming along well as he continues to improve.

Benson Mayowa was brought to Dallas because he had the traits that Rod Marinelli looks for in an edge rusher. After flashing some great play last year, he looks to build on a strong finish to the season and establish his place in the rotation.

Why is LaGarrette Blount a good running back for the New England Patriots, but terrible everywhere else? Sometimes, the environment means everything. For Stephen Paea, returning to play for Rod Marinelli is just the kind of change he was looking for. This is a match made in heaven. Paea is a cheap free agent signing that not many are thinking too much about, but his explosiveness off the snap has helped him be disruptive in camp. Don’t be shocked if Paea becomes a fan favorite real quick.

The Cowboys also have Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence who haven’t lived up to expectations so far, but injuries have had a lot to do with that. If just one of these players could put together a healthy season, that would help a lot.

And although Taco Charlton is a rookie, he is a player that is going to get better and better with each new snap. Fans want immediate dividends from first-round draft picks, but it doesn’t always work that way with a player as raw as Charlton. The Cowboys went after him, not for what he is but for what he can become. It’s going to take some time.

While there may not be any single player that can rescue the Cowboys defense, it’s the collection of the growth that will help this unit outperform previous seasons. Will there be some “uh oh” moments? Absolutely. But there will also be some exciting times as well. They have players in place that are good enough to step up and takes advantage of an opponent that will be playing on their heels.

And if there ever is a certain player or position group that has you worried, just remember this mantra - The Team. The Team. The Team.