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The Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 defense is still a mystery

With so many new faces, do we know how good the defense will be, or when it might gel?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest themes of the Cowboys’ offseason was the team decision to let most of its secondary walk in free agency — Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, and J.J. Wilcox — and attempt to replace those players with draft picks and perhaps a free agent or two. Those replacement players became Nolan Carroll, a free agent cornerback from Philadelphia, Chidobe Awuzie, a second-round pick from Colorado, Jourdan Lewis, a third-round pick from Michigan, Xavier Woods, a sixth-round pick from Louisiana Tech, and Marquez White, a seventh-rounder from Florida State (who may or may not make the team).

But it hasn’t just been the secondary that has turned over. At linebacker, with the injury to Anthony Hitchens, redshirt second-year player Jaylon Smith is going to get a lot of snaps at middle linebacker.

On the defensive line, Dallas let Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford go in free agency, and brought in Stephen Paea and Damontre Moore as free agents, while they spent their first-round draft pick on Taco Charlton. Charles Tapper also returned from his redshirt rookie season when he was out with a back injury.

As the Cowboys prepare to play the Giants on September 10th, we’ve seen a fair amount of reps from the new guys on the defensive line and Jaylon Smith at linebacker. Nolan Carroll has also played a fair amount in the secondary. But all of the drafted defensive backs have missed considerable time, and Jourdan Lewis hasn’t been seen at all in training camp or preseason. So there is still a considerable mystery as to how this unit is going to gel, and how well they might play together when the games count.

Defensive Backfield

Let’s look at last season’s snaps, along with a guess about who will replace those snaps. New players are in red.

Player Pos Games Total Season Percent Replacement?
Brandon Carr CB 16 1015 1058 96% Orlando Scandrick
Anthony Brown CB 16 717 1058 68% Nolan Carroll
Orlando Scandrick CB 12 645 1058 61% Anthony Brown
Morris Claiborne CB 7 408 1058 39% Chidobe Awuzie?
Leon McFadden CB 3 56 1058 5% Jourdan Lewis?
Byron Jones S 16 986 1058 93% Byron Jones
Barry Church S 12 676 1058 64% Jeff Heath
J.J. Wilcox S 13 557 1058 53% Xavier Woods?
Jeff Heath S 16 243 1058 23% Kavon Frazier
Kavon Frazier S 3 37 1058 3% Marquez White?

As you can see, the Cowboys used eight defensive backs last year, plus Leon McFadden for 56 snaps and Kavon Frazier for 37 snaps. Overall, the Cowboys have to replace 2,712 snaps from defensive backs. That’s 678 snaps times four players. Only two Cowboys defensive backs had more than that number of snaps last year. How are they going to do it?

If you count Kavon Frazier, because he had so few snaps last year, the Cowboys will have five or six new defensive backs trying to pick up all these snaps. Fortunately, Orlando Scandrick looks healthy again, and will likely lead the way this year. But he can’t be expected to cover all of Brandon Carr’s 1,015 snaps. Newcomer Nolan Carroll or Anthony Brown are likely to finish second and third in snaps, and may be able to cover about what Scandrick and Brown covered last year. That would leave 400-500 snaps for the rookies Awuzie and Lewis, perhaps more if they can get healthy enough to get on the field and start proving themselves.

The challenge among the cornerbacks is that only two of the five or six who will likely make the team have more than a single year of NFL experience.

At safety, Byron Jones needs to keep improving, as he’s been good but not great each of his two seasons. Jeff Heath is being asked to increase his snaps significantly. If he plays well, he can likely exceed Barry Church’s 676 snaps. But, because the Cowboys play so much nickel and dime, there will be a lot of snaps for Xavier Woods and/or Kavon Frazier, depending on which of the two steps up. Both of them are unproven late-round draft picks. It’s possible the Cowboys will also use Chidobe Awuzie here as well.

This young group might end up playing better than the veterans the Cowboys have used the last few years. But, until we see them all on the field together, which we haven’t seen at all this preseason, they are going to be a mystery.

Defensive Line

Now let’s look at how the defensive line has changed.

Player Pos Games Total Season Percent Replacement?
Maliek Collins DT 16 659 1058 62% Maliek Collins
Tyrone Crawford DE/DT 14 593 1058 56% Tyrone Crawford
Jack Crawford DE/DT 16 561 1058 53% DeMarcus Lawrence
David Irving DE/DT 16 489 1058 46% Stephen Paea
Terrell McClain DT 15 471 1058 45% Taco Charlton
Benson Mayowa DE 13 382 1058 36% David Irving
DeMarcus Lawrence DE 9 329 1058 31% Benson Mayowa
Cedric Thornton DT 13 277 1058 26% Cedric Thornton
Ryan Davis DE 8 155 1058 15% Damontre Moore
Randy Gregory DE 2 66 1058 6% Charles Tapper
Richard Ash DT 1 30 1058 3% Lewis Neal?

There is less change on the defensive line than the secondary, but it is still significant. The Cowboys are losing 1,283 snaps - Jack Crawford (561), Terrell McClain (471), Ryan Davis (155), Randy Gregory (66), and Richard Ash (30).

Unlike the secondary, the Cowboys will be replacing these snaps with veterans for the most part. DeMarcus Lawrence should get a lot more snaps. Stephen Paea is expected to take Terrell McClain’s role, and may exceed his snaps inside. And the Cowboys added Damontre Moore. Plus, Maliek Collins in his second season should be much improved. The only “rookies” are first-rounder Taco Charlton and redshirt rookie Charles Tapper.

Can this group stop the run as well as last year? Can they get to the quarterback much better than last year? Things look promising, but it remains a mystery until we see it on the field.

Linebacker

How does this group compare?

Player Pos Games Total Season Percent Replacement?
Sean Lee LB 15 977 1058 92% Sean Lee
Anthony Hitchens LB 16 581 1058 55% Jaylon Smith
Justin Durant LB 13 282 1058 27% Justin Durant
Damien Wilson LB 16 284 1058 27% Anthony Hitchens
Andrew Gachkar LB 4 74 1058 7% Damien Wilson
Kyle Wilber LB 7 49 1058 5% Kyle Wilber
Mark Nzeocha LB 1 16 1058 2% Mark Nzeocha?

This group has only one major change from last season - the insertion of Jaylon Smith for Anthony Hitchens at middle linebacker. Last year, Hitchens and Justin Durant split that role, with Hitchens essentially doubling Durant’s snaps. Still, together they didn’t match Sean Lee’s 977 snaps. That’s because the Cowboys used six defensive backs some of the time.

With Hitchens eligible to return after six games, Smith likely won’t need to go more than about 400 snaps. Durant can repeat the level he played last year, which helped keep him healthy. And Hitchens and Wilson can fill in the rest.

The question, though, is how well will Jaylon Smith be this year? Will he keep getting better? And, if so, how fast will he improve? Even here, in this most stable of the defensive groups, we don’t really know how well they are going to play together.

Conclusion

Overall, depending on some final roster decisions, the Cowboys are looking at around 12 new players on a defensive roster of around 25 players. If the Cowboys end up adding players over the course of the season, they will also likely be new. There likely won’t be a 50% turnover in snap counts, because many of the newer players will have lessened snaps, but 30% or more of the snaps could be taken by new players.

There have been many optimistic articles written about the new blood the Cowboys brought in. As we argued here, given the overall poor rankings the Cowboys put up in defensive real quarterback rating differential over the last five years, when the team never ranked higher than 22nd, there was certainly a need for the team to try something different. Nevertheless, until we see this group gel on the field, they are going to be a bit of a mystery.