The majority of the talk this offseason regarding the Cowboys has surrounded the offensive side of the ball. Mike McCarthy’s hiring, Dak Prescott and his contract, and how the addition of CeeDee Lamb will take this offense to the next level. After being at or near the top in every category a season ago, it is very reasonable to be even more excited about that side of the ball.
Still, successful teams are typically good on both sides of the ball. Sometimes the offense is better than the defense, or the defense is more advanced than the offense, but it is awfully hard to be a very good team without having, at minimum, competence of the weaker side.
Despite the success of the offense last season, the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs for the second time in the Prescott era. The defense and special teams ultimately proved to be too much to overcome over 16 regular season games.
Dallas has a new staff in town. While McCarthy is certainly an offensive coach, there are changes on the defensive side. Notably, Mike Nolan is in charge of the defense, with a new staff under him. Hoping to improve on the previous regime, the new staff has emphasized playing the ball and creating turnovers on defense. It appears as if the team will be coached to play aggressive in all three phases of the game.
That said, it remains to be seen how much improved — if any — this defense will be next season. After all, the Cowboys did lose corner Byron Jones and pass rusher Robert Quinn to big deals in free agency. These are three players that need to have a strong season for Dallas.
Jaylon Smith was a big reason in why the Cowboys’ defense was successful in 2018. The former Notre Dame star showcased his sideline-to-sideline speed each and every week and formed a very talented duo alongside Leighton Vander Esch. Smith appeared to be overcoming the devastating injury that he suffered during his last collegiate game and seemed to be on the verge of becoming a cornerstone of the Cowboys defense.
The Cowboys rewarded the 2016 second-rounder by inking him to a contract extension prior to the 2019 season. With a new contract in hand and a solid season in the books, the expectations were high for Smith entering last season.
Unfortunately, for both Smith and the Cowboys, Smith struggled last season. Some of that can perhaps be attributed to LVE missing most of the season, but Smith himself struggled mightily. Number 54 has issues in coverage and failed to make the impact plays that he did in 2018. All in all, the linebacker took a big step back.
Smith now has a chance to get back to his 2018 form under a new defensive staff. There is some thought that the new regime will give Smith the role of rushing the passer more often than in previous seasons. The rising fifth-year backer has had his moments when he gets after the quarterback and is playing at full speed. Perhaps this change will bring out the best in the Notre Dame product.
Regardless, the Cowboys need Smith to raise his game up a level. There are numerous factors in why the Cowboys’ defense took a big step back in 2019, and Smith’s regression is among the top. A big season by Jaylon Smith could potentially do wonders for Nolan’s unit.
The 2017 Cowboys draft class will not go down in history in the same way that the 2016 class will. First-round pick Taco Charlton was cut by Dallas last season before being released by the Miami Dolphins following his third year in the league. Charlton is on his third squad already after inking a deal with the Chiefs.
Chidobe Awuzie is another player that was selected in that draft class. In fact, he was the very next pick by the Cowboys, as Dallas grabbed the former Colorado defensive back in the second-round. Awuzie has shown some flashes during his young career, but he has struggled in finding the football in the air. As a result, he has often been beat despite playing relatively good coverage on the wide receiver.
Much like Smith, there has been some speculation that the Cowboys could give Auwize a new role. Awuzie’s versatility made him a very attractive prospect coming out of Colorado, and Mike McCarthy recently said that the team could be moving a current corner to safety. Was he referring to Chido?
Our own DannyPhantom argues that the Cowboys should actually keep the Colorado product at his current spot.
Not only would moving Awuzie leave them light at corner, but right now - the starting safety spots are occupiedo. With the addition of free agent Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, he and Xavier Woods should be able to handle the majority of the reps. Moving Awuzie would be removing a starter at corner, only to add depth at safety. That doesn’t seem like a good allocation of resources.
There are reasons to feel good about keeping Awuzie at corner. He’s gets a bad rep at times, but he’s a better corner than some give him credit for. When it comes to knocking down passes, few on the team are better. In fact, nobody.
Dallas decided to not pay Byron Jones, so that leaves a lot of question marks all over the secondary, especially at corner. The NFL is a passing league and while the offense has put a ton of resources into that regard, the defense still needs to be able to defend the opponent’s passing attack.
Awuzie needs a big season for a variety of reasons. For one, he is entering the final season on his rookie contract. If his contract ended today, it is reasonable to expect that the Cowboys would likely move on from their former second-round selection. He could definitely use a big season if he wants to either stay in Texas or receive a nice deal elsewhere.
Secondly, the Cowboys need a corner to step up in a big way. There is a lot of optimism surrounding both 2020 second-round pick Trevon Diggs and fourth-rounder Reggie Robinson, but it’s a lot to ask for out of rookie defensive backs. Awuzie taking a step forward at corner would likely mean good things for the rest of the defense.
Xavier Woods is also a member of that 2017 draft class. Many expected the former Louisiana Tech safety to go late day two or early day three of that draft, but he instead fell all of the way until the sixth-round. Woods has flashed at different points in his career, giving many hope that he can hold down the back-end of the defense.
Woods put together an impressive 2019 training camp. He held his own against the Cowboys’ receivers, made plays on the ball, and received strong reviews from many after nearly every practice. Because of that, the thought was that Woods would take a leap in 2019.
While Woods did show signs of improvement over the course of the season — two interceptions and a career-high 77 tackles, he was not the player that many were predicting him to be. For every strong moment that Woods had, there were also some frustrating plays that were made as well.
Now with Jeff Heath off to the Las Vegas Raiders, Xavier Woods is the veteran in the safeties room. Dallas added Ha Ha Clinton-Dix through free agency to likely start alongside Woods, but Woods is looked at as the guy at the position. The Cowboys opted to pass on safety during the draft despite some mocking players such as Xavier McKinney and Grant Delpit to the team leading up to the draft. Does that mean the Cowboys feel good about what they have in Woods both in the current moment and moving forward, or is it simply just a matter of Dallas not prioritizing the position as much as others?
Similar to Awuzie, Woods is entering the final year on his rookie deal and there is no guarantee that Dallas will extend the defensive back. The Cowboys need a strong campaign from their safety in 2020.