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The Cowboys defense is a bunch of unknown orphans no more

Contrary to popular opinion, the Cowboys have invested quite some draft capital into their defense, and it's about to pay off.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

One of the popular stories surrounding the Cowboys is that the team has a no-name defense that's held together by little more than hustle and Rod Marinelli's coaching.

And that story is not without merit. In 2013 for example, the Cowboys cycled through 19 defensive lineman over the course of the season. It got so bad in practice at one point that when Rod Marinelli called, “Hey, new guy!”, the entire defensive line turned around.

The Cowboy defensive players themselves have bought into the story of the defense being the perennial underdog.

“Coach Marinelli always has something he comes up with every year,” Tyrone Crawford said last year. “This year it’s ‘The Mighty Orphans.’ It’s kind of how we live, the mentality of being treated with less [respect]. We’re Rocky, not the Russians. We don’t get the high-class treatment, but we get the job done."

More recently, the legend of the under-manned and under-talented defense has taken on a bit of a life of its own, especially when the Cowboys lost a handful of defensive starters this year. This led some to question whether Rod Marinelli's ability to coax the maximum out of his defensive players has allowed the Cowboys to shortchange the defensive side of the ball in the draft and in free agency.

Rod Marinelli's role in all of this has grown to such an extent that he's being called Master Splinter, the sensei who trained the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the arts of ninjutsu, all while raising them as his own sons.

"He's Master Splinter," Crawford said. "Definitely."

Most recently this legend of the under-talented defense held together by Rod Marinelli's coaching surfaced in one of Peter King's meandering reflections on another week of NFL play.

I think the Giants’ porous line helped, but I’ll be damned if Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli hasn’t again figured a way to take a slew of blue-collar players with a star or two (Sean Lee may be the only one) and build a defense that should be good enough for Dallas to contend for the playoffs.

Blue-collar players with a star or two?

Just because Peter King, and with him a whole armada of other national journalists, doesn't know the names of the young guys on the Cowboys defense doesn't mean there's no talent there.

Can't call it a no-name defense just because you don't know the names of the young guys on the team.

Here's a little data dump about the draft pedigree of the 2017 defense.

  • The Cowboys defense has 12 (!!!!) players picked in the first three rounds of the draft, the offense only 10.
  • Even more importantly, of those 12 defensive players, seven are still on their rookie contracts, while only three of the 10 offensive players are still on rookie contracts.
  • The defense has six players who are former second-rounders. The offense does not have a single second-rounder on the roster.

You may find this hard to believe, but there's a (theoretical) way to construct a defensive lineup where ten of the eleven starters were picked in the first three rounds of the draft.

Add Damontre Moore (3rd) and Tyrone Crawford (3rd) and those are your 12 defensive players drafted on day one or day two of the NFL Draft.

Obviously the lineup above is constructed to maximize draft pedigree. Add Orlando Scandrick to the mix, one of the leagues best slot corners; add Anthony Brown, one of the most promising young talents at CB in the league; add Anthony Hitchens at linebacker, and suddenly you're spoiled for choice on this defense.

As a group, the Cowboys defense has a surprisingly good draft pedigree. The players don't (yet) have the name recognition their more prominent colleagues on offense have, but the defense is far from being the under-manned, under-pedigreed, and underachieving defense many still see it as, despite the defense ranking fifth in points allowed last year (and 2nd so far this year).

The Cowboys have quietly invested quite some draft capital into their defense, and it's about to pay off.