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How Cowboys defensive players might fit into Mike Nolan’s defense

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Nolan will be bringing a more multiple look to Dallas, so what does that mean for the roster?

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Last week Mike McCarthy confirmed that while new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be bringing a more multiple look to the defense, they will remain a defense with four down linemen. This lines up with earlier projections we gave based on Nolan’s defensive playbook from his days as the 49ers head coach and based on how his multiple 4-3 defense in Atlanta worked.

But how would these pieces fit into Nolan’s defense? There won’t be any drastic changes, since the bare bones will still involve four linemen, but it’s reasonable to expect the Cowboys to routinely feature one of their defensive ends standing up, as well as incorporating a lot more two-gap principles for their interior defensive linemen.

Usually when a team knows they’ll be having at least one lineman do a lot of two-gapping, they look for bigger linemen who are stronger at the point of attack. Currently, the Cowboys only have two defensive tackles under contract: Trysten Hill and Tyrone Crawford. While Crawford could be in line to take a pay cut or potentially even be a cap casualty, he could take on some two-gap roles moving forward. Crawford has lasted this long in Dallas due in part to his strength and versatility. Hill, on the other hand, was drafted particularly because of his raw athleticism that made him a good project as a penetrating 3-technique. Between that and his quiet rookie year, don’t expect Hill to be used much for two-gap plans.

Antwaun Woods is an exclusive rights free agent, making it very likely that Dallas brings him back. At 310 pounds, Woods has done a great job as the Cowboys’ top 1-technique, and could transition well to more of a two-gap nose tackle. Woods also spent the first two years of his career in such a role in Tennessee when he was much closer to 330 pounds, so he has experience to boot.

But while Woods and Crawford could fill this role, the Cowboys will also likely look to add more bodies in free agency and the draft. Crawford and Hill can still be productive, too, as Nolan tends to still make use of a penetrating 3-technique. The Cowboys could also try to re-sign pending free agents like Maliek Collins or Kerry Hyder to fill those roles, too.

The edge is where things have the potential to get interesting. DeMarcus Lawrence is this team’s top edge rusher, and the fact that he had the third-highest pass rush win rate in the league last year solidifies that fact. It’ll be interesting to see if Nolan and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula try to move him around more often, but at the very least we know Tank has experience playing out of a two point stance:

The opposite edge position is a bit of a question mark for now. Robert Quinn was tremendous in 2019 but he might get an offer in free agency the Cowboys don’t want to match. And while a potential Randy Gregory return would be an ideal fit in this multiple defense, banking on him seems futile at this point. If re-signed, Hyder could see an improved role as well. Dorance Armstrong, Jalen Jelks, and Joe Jackson could all be in the mix, but none have shown enough to be relied on going forward. There are plenty of options in the draft and free agency.

One look that was routinely shown (pictured above) under Nolan’s Falcons defense featured three down linemen and his edge rusher in a two point stance with a linebacker lined up like an extra edge rusher on the opposite side, also standing up. While Nolan frequently dropped the linebacker into coverage and just brought his usual four, he switched it up and sometimes brought all five or dropped his defensive end back and brought the linebacker.

If Nolan wants to have a similar level of unpredictability, then he’s going to love Jaylon Smith. While Smith has quickly ascended the list of top MIKE linebackers in the NFL - being named Pro Football Focus’ Breakout Player of the Year in 2018 and getting a Pro Bowl nod in 2019 - he’s also been very effective as an occasional pass rusher. At 248 pounds, he has the size to match up with offensive linemen and his straight line speed helps. Through three years he has 7.5 sacks, and in his two years as a full-time starter Smith is getting pressure on nearly 15% of his blitzes, a solid mark.

Nolan could seek to line up Smith opposite Lawrence in this kind of front, and the threat of Smith rushing the passer would be very legitimate. Of course, this would mean that someone else would need to fill Smith’s usual MIKE role in these packages, presumably alongside Leighton Vander Esch. When Smith isn’t lining up on the line of scrimmage, he and Vander Esch would go back to their duo that worked so well in 2018 before injuries hampered their 2019 season.

The secondary leaves the most questions, though. Nolan has a habit of disguising coverages but he doesn’t have any strong preferences in the way that Kris Richard frequently called Cover 1 and Cover 3. Additionally, with Maurice Linguist and Al Harris coming in as the two coaches overseeing the defensive backs, some of the back end of things might be determined by those two.

A lot of it also hinges on the impending free agency of Byron Jones, Anthony Brown, and Jeff Heath. Depending on who’s actually playing in the secondary could also dictate what kinds of coverages Nolan runs. But as for the front seven, it seems that Nolan has some pieces to work with already.