There is a serious chance that in 2018 the Dallas Cowboys will boast one of the better defensive units in the NFL. After bombarding the defense with young talent in the offseason going into 2017, improvements were made. In 2017, Dallas some saw bright spots in younger players like Jourdan Lewis, Xavier Woods, Chidobe Awuzie (when healthy), and even first-round pick Taco Charlton. There were growing pains at times, but the future looks bright. And with another offseason for all of those rookies under their belts, there could be even more room for growth.
In the NFL, defensive lines and secondaries work hand in hand. If a pass rush is generated consistently and the quarterback can be forced into throwing early, the secondary will benefit from shorter periods of time staying on receivers and an increased number of takeaways. Conversely, if a secondary can stick with their assignments for longer periods of time, the defensive line will have more time to get home to the quarterback.
While it is still up in the air whether Randy Gregory will be able to play in 2018, the Cowboys should be able to generate a consistent pass rush. Last year was a career-year from DeMarcus Lawrence, but there is no reason to think he won’t put up big numbers again. David Irving is currently slated to serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, but will return after that. While the Cowboys will be without one of their key cogs on the defensive line, there were enough glimpses out of Taco Charlton in 2017 to believe that he is headed toward a bigger opportunity this season.
The drafting of Leighton Vander Esch strengthened a linebacker group that was already one of the better ones in football headlined by Sean Lee. After a run of games with so-so play, Jaylon Smith really impressed towards the end of the 2017 season. And all reports are that he is as close to his Notre Dame self in terms of health as he has been since the injury.
A quality pass rush along with linebackers who can make plays will allow the secondary to concentrate on doing what they need to, shut down the passing game and come up with turnovers.
While discussing the secondary, let’s start with safety Xavier Woods, who has the ability to develop into the center-fielder of the Cowboys’ defense. When the Cowboys drafted him in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the team was more than giddy. They had a fourth-round value on the Louisiana Tech product. And his rookie season was indicative of that. With Byron Jones moving to cornerback, Woods is free to be the guy as the last line of defense. He has exceptional tracking ability to go along with good recognition skills. On top of that, he showed prowess in his coverage ability while manning the slot position for part of the 2017 season. And with more experience and opportunity, Woods should thrive under Kris Richard’s tutelage.
Notable fellow second-year players, cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie, are also primed for breakout seasons. Lewis, more so than Awuzie due to injury, played more in 2017 and established himself earlier. He had a few coverage issues like all rookies, but Lewis had more bright spots than not in his first season. Injuries and inconsistent play led to Lewis playing more snaps than originally intended. That experience will benefit him as he enters his second season.
A hamstring problem led to an injury-riddled rookie campaign, but Awuzie was everything the Cowboys expected when they drafted him with their second-round pick in 2017. After Awuzie was healthy enough to play, he started the final five games of the year. He finished the year with 27 total tackles, seven pass deflections, one interception and even a sack. Awuzie is a bigger cornerback, something the Cowboys are moving toward. If he can steer clear of injury, Awuzie will only become more comfortable on the field, and eventually could turn into the Cowboys’ No. 1 coverage cornerback.
But the nucleus of defensive backs goes beyond just the three rookies. Veterans Byron Jones, Anthony Brown, and Jeff Heath will be back in the picture in 2018, giving the Cowboys a deep group with plenty of experience to complement the young guys. With Jones moving back to the position of cornerback, he should could finally find a home and become a more consistent player. With his unique athleticism paired with acceleration, Jones should be in more situations where he can create more takeaways.
Brown took a step backward in 2017, but the Cowboys will be wise with the role they give him to start the season. He was a starter from the get-go last season after an impressive rookie season. But an increased role led to lesser dividends. To regain his confidence, he will be relegated to a role that will cater towards his strengths. So far, he is seeing time at the slot.
There may not be a player on the roster who goes more unnoticed than Heath. As a guy who play both spots at safety and make a difference on special teams, Heath is a valuable commodity for Dallas. Fortunately for the team, Heath is under contract for two more seasons at a cheap cost.
Dallas has the talent, the depth, the ability upfront, and now the takeaway-minded coach for this unit to completely unleash havoc this season. The Cowboys have not had a secondary that can force takeaways and take games over in quite some time. 2018 might just be the year.
There have been countless games in the past few years where either Dak Prescott or Tony Romo have had heroic performances, yet the end result was a loss. Perhaps this is the year when that narrative can change. All signs are pointing to it and if the injury bug does not hit hard in the unit, this secondary will be among one of the better ones in football.