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The offense may be stacked, but the Dallas Cowboys defense offers some intriguing upside

The Cowboys defense has the potential to be really good.

Washington Redskins v San Francisco 49ers

CeeDee Lamb is a Dallas Cowboy!

How good does it feel to say that? When you add him to the mix on an offense that was first in the league last season in yards gained, how can you not be excited about this upcoming season? The trio (out of respect, I didn’t use “triplets’) of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper are all returning and it’s only a matter of time that all three of them are under contract for the next several years.

While many people are excited about the possibilities on offense, some are still worried about the defense. Sure, they don’t have the star talent, draft resources, or cap allocation like their offensive counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been able to hold their head above water in recent years. In fact, they’ve been the more consistent of the team’s units, finishing in the top half in each of the last four seasons.

In 2018, the offense finished 22nd in both points scored and yards allowed, but still managed to win the division thanks to a defense that finished sixth and seventh respectively in those categories. And when both units finished in the top five in points, the Cowboys went 13-3 that year.

Being great on both sides of the ball has its advantages, and believe it or not, the Cowboys might have a great chance to accomplish that this year. Don’t get me wrong, the amount of uncertainties with this defensive unit are plentiful, but if some of these dice rolls work, it will really raises the ceiling of just how good this football team can be. Let’s examine.

The team started by adding two reliable veteran defensive tackles in free agency with the signings of Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. ESPN recently listed the Cowboys DT change as the #10 ranked position upgrade of the offseason through free agency/trades. While both of these guys peaked years ago, their production is still at a level that will be meaningful. McCoy may be 32 years old, but he’s still plugging away, and he’s about as reliable an interior defensive linemen as there is out there. In his third year in the league in 2012, he earned Pro Bowl honors, and has been a strong contributor ever since. Since that span, he hasn’t had a single season where he missed more than three games and his sack totals are pretty darn consistent.

The sack totals are nice, but the McCoy/Poe combo provide a much better run-stopping presence to the defense. At 346 pounds, Poe gives the team a true nose tackle that can effectively take on the interior push from the offense, allowing other pieces along the defensive line to do their thing.

Speaking of other pieces, the team will be searching for an effective edge rusher to pair with DeMarcus Lawrence. There are a handful of possible choices, and we now know that one of them will be Aldon Smith after learning the former All-Pro will be conditionally reinstated for the 2020 season. Yes, he’s been out of the league for the past four years, but what if he can recapture some of that awesomeness that saw him record 19.5 sacks back in 2012?

That seems like a tall order, but we posed the same question about Robert Quinn last year. After his sack totals showed a steady decline, he produced the second-highest sack total of his career, only trailing his 19 sack performance in 2013. Like Quinn, there’s been a lot of space between Smith’s dominant All-Pro performance, but both edge rushers are the same age, and the upside is certainly there. This Cowboys defensive line has the potential to wreck some stuff this season.

Fun fact: Smith’s defensive line coach in San Francisco when he had 19.5 sacks? - Jim Tomsula, the new defensive line coach for the Cowboys.

Probably one of the biggest wild cards is Leighton Vander Esch. After a neck injury landed him on injured reserve last season, many are holding their breath that the team’s All-Pro linebacker can return to the field.

So, when we heard a few days ago that LVE has fully recovered from his neck injury, fans have good reason to be excited. Vander Esch led the team with 140 tackles in 2018 as he was all over the field. Getting a player like that back would mean great things for this Cowboys defense.

The secondary is also another group that presents a great unknown. The team is now without their best shutdown corner in Byron Jones; however, they did score a nice break when Trevon Diggs was still available in the second round of April’s draft. There will be some growing pains with the rookie, but his ball-hawking presence will offer a refreshing change to the position group. The team has several other viable options such as Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis., so they should still be in good shape at the cornerback position.

They may even get a little better at safety as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is an underrated pick-up who earned Pro Bowl honors playing for Mike McCarthy in Green Bay. The duo of Clinton-Dix and Xavier Woods gives the team the best coverage safety tandem they’ve had in quite some time. Similar to corner, they have solid pieces like Darian Thompson and Donovan Wilson on the bench to give them good depth should the injury bug strike.

Finally, when you combine all that new talent with a revamped coaching staff, it’s hard not to be excited about what this defense can do. Sure, the lost two former first-round defenders in Jones and Quinn, but they’ve also added four former first-round defenders in McCoy, Poe, Smith, and Clinton-Dix. While all eyes will be on this potent offense, it could be the emergence of an improved defense that takes this team to the next level.

Former first-round picks who have played at a Pro Bowl level

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