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Cowboys defense has potential to be one of the better units in the NFL

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After a positive end to the 2017 season, the Cowboys defense is set to take another major step forward in 2018.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

For years it’s been the same old song and dance. The Cowboys offense will be the engine that makes the car drive, and the Cowboys defense just needs to be good enough to keep them in games. Entering the 2018 season, the roles may have flipped. The Cowboys offense is still expected to be plenty good, but the Cowboys defense may be the driving force behind the success of the team.

In 2017, the Cowboys defense was a roller coaster of a unit. At times, they looked to be one of the best units in the league with DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving, and Sean Lee flying around making plays. At other times, they looked like one of the worst units in the league with Sean Lee and David Irving sidelined due to injury.

After a slight change in the secondary after the debacle against the Chargers on Thanksgiving, the secondary that deployed Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis as the starting cornerbacks finished the year as one of the top units in the league. In the final five-weeks of the season, the Cowboys defense held every offense to under 20 points to close out the season.

The losses

The Cowboys defense did lose some starters this offseason to free agency. The biggest loss to the defense would have to be linebacker Anthony Hitchens who signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Chiefs in the first week of free agency. Orlando Scandrick was released by the Cowboys back in March, the divisional rival Washington Redskins quickly signed the 31-year-old corner after his release from the Cowboys. The writing has been on the wall for Scandrick after Dallas drafted three cornerbacks in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Cowboys also lost a few role players this offseason; Justin Durant, Benson Mayowa, Bene Benwikere, and Kyle Wilber all found themselves on new teams after being released or not re-signed after the 2017 season.

The additions

With loses, comes additions, and the Cowboys defense had plenty of those after the week 17 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys added defensive linemen Jihad Ward, Antwaun Woods, Kony Ealy, and Dorance Armstrong. Linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Chris Covington were also added via the Draft. The Cowboys secondary stayed relatively the same, but undrafted free agents Kameron Kelly and Charvarius Ward have a chance to make the 53-man roster with a solid training camp and preseason.

Key players

In every defense there are key players that can either make or break the defense with their level of play. Dallas has multiple key players on every level of their defense that need to play at a high level week in and week out in order for the defense to be a top 10 unit.

  • DeMarcus Lawrence - Lawrence exploded onto the scene last year with 14.5 sacks. Not only was Tank a dominant force rushing the passer, but her was also one of the best run-defending defensive ends in the league. If Lawrence plays anywhere close to the level he played at last year, this defense will be in excellent shape.

  • The starting linebackers - All three of the Cowboys penciled in starters at linebacker will be key to the defenses success in 2018. 31-year-old Sean Lee must stay healthy and play at the level we’re used to seeing. Jaylon Smith needs to improve and continue to regain strength in his knee/foot, and trust his ability. First-round pick Leighton Vander Esch needs to develop quickly and stay healthy. If all three of these guys can stay on the field and play at the level they are capable of, the Dallas linebacker corps has the potential to be one of the best in the league, or it could be the exact opposite if they can’t.
  • The second-year cornerbacks - In the last five weeks of the season, Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie exceeded everyone’s expectations with their level of play to close out the season. Awuzie and Lewis both started the season slow after hamstring injuries kept them limited in training camp and preseason. Both corners finished the season with an interception, and played very well against the run. Both Chido and Jourdan are versatile, in that they can play on the boundary or in the nickel. With Kris Richard being a heavy influence on the defense, if the two second-year cornerbacks can take a big step forward, we could be looking at one of the most talented, young secondaries in the league.
  • Byron Jones - If fourth-year defensive back Byron Jones can make a smooth transition to corner that would give the Cowboys three very talented and young starting cornerbacks to work with. Jones, who has primarily played safety since being drafted by the Cowboys in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, is the ideal physical specimen for Kris Richard to mold into a long, physical press-corner in Dallas’ defensive scheme.
  • Xavier Woods - The 2017 sixth-round pick looks like he’s slated to be one of the starting safeties come week one. Woods saw playing time in his rookie season at free safety, strong safety, and nickel cornerback. Woods had tremendous college film at Louisiana Tech as the teams starting safety. We saw signs last year of Woods being a player that could really put this defense over the top if given the opportunities to do so, in year two the Cowboys coaching staff is going all-in on Xavier Woods as a starting safety.

The Cowboys defense has acquired some serious talent recently, but, there are plenty of questions marks as well. If the core defenders can stay relatively healthy (and out of trouble), expect this defense to pick up where it left off last year, and even take a big step forward. This group is young, hungry, and possesses plenty of talent. With Kris Richard playing a big role on the defensive coaching staff, this defense could be one of the best Cowboys Nation has seen in some time. That would be a breath of fresh air after years of disappointment on the defensive side of the ball.