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A position-by-position breakdown of the Cowboys defense and examining which groups got better

With so many changes along the defense, how will it affect each position group?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Training Camp Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys shook things up this offseason with some big changes in their coaching staff. New head coach Mike McCarthy brings with him a lot of coaching experience, as well as several new coaches to help him along the way. These changes include:

  • Defensive coordinator - Mike Nolan
  • Defensive line - Jim Tomsula
  • Senior defensive assistant - George Edwards
  • Linebackers - Scott McCurley
  • Defensive backs - Maurice Linguist and Al Harris

The only returning defensive coach is assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett.

While the coaching carousel was plentiful, so was the roster turnover. The Cowboys have completely overhauled their roster with several new faces who are expected to crack the starting lineup. Today, we’re taking a look at each position group and determining which areas got better, which got worse, and which areas stayed the same.

Here is how the defense DVOA has ranked throughout the Jason Garret era:

KEY LOSSES: Robert Quinn and Maliek Collins

ADDITIONS: Everson Griffen, Gerald McCoy, Aldon Smith, Dontari Poe

RETURNING FROM INJURY: Tyrone Crawford

The Cowboys did not re-sign Quinn or Collins this offseason as both of them landed nice deals with new teams. They both come with a collective annual cost of $20 million. Instead, the Cowboys have acquired four new defensive line free agents at a collective annual cost of $18.25 million. They have essentially remodeled their defensive line starting unit to give them three new players to start alongside DeMarcus Lawrence.

Initially, it was believed that this unit would take a step back after losing Quinn, but the Cowboys front office has done an outstanding job bringing in quality players for a surprisingly low cost. It’s also going to push other former starting players like Crawford and Antwaun Woods into reserve roles, keeping this Cowboys defensive line fresh and full of fire.

The team is every bit as good on the edge, and has the potential to be phenomenal should Aldon Smith rekindle some of that potency that made him a stud years back. And the team got stronger in the middle with McCoy and Poe, which has been an area of concern as the defense has been susceptible against the run at times.

VERDICT: Regardless of what you think in terms of who’s better - Quinn or Griffen, this defensive line group as a whole has definitely improved.

KEY LOSSES: Nobody

ADDITIONS: Nobody

RETURNING FROM INJURY: Leighton Vander Esch

This could be one of the most underrated improvements on the Cowboys defense despite no upgrade happening at all. The pairing of Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch was remarkable in 2018 as they combined for 261 tackles. But with LVE missing seven games last year and playing while not at full strength in many others, his absence was felt. Smith was a different player too as he looked more like the 2017 version where he was asked to do too much after both Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens each missed 4+ games that year.

The Cowboys missed 119 tackles last season which was seventh worst in the league. Lee is still around and he may have cracked the code in staying healthy as he played a full 16 games last year for the first time in his career. He compiled 86 tackles as less overall wear throughout the season suits this smart defender well. Joe Thomas played 246 snaps on defense as he’s solid in coverage, but he also logged the fourth-most special team reps on the team. And who knows what last year’s UDFA Luke Gifford can contribute if he is able to stay healthy. This unit has solid depth to go along with a great starting core.

But the key will be LVE. A healthy Vander Esch combined with a greater mass times acceleration on the interior defensive line should bring sexy back to the Cowboys front seven.

VERDICT: If Vander Esch is fully healthy and returns to form, this group just got a whole lot better.

KEY LOSSES: Byron Jones

ADDITIONS: Trevon Diggs, Daryl Worley, and Reggie Robinson II

RETURNING FROM INJURY: Anthony Brown

On the surface, this looks like the most significant negative change for the Cowboys defense this year. Losing an All-Pro player like Byron Jones will have that kind of impact.

But it’s important to understand that the Cowboys pass defense hasn’t been all that fantastic for the last decade, and the cornerback group just tries to keep it’s head above water year in and year out. Looking specifically at the pass defense DVOA over the Garrett era shows this group has been nothing to write home about, but consistently mediocre these past five seasons.

So, does that bring about fear that things can get worse without Jones? Sure. That’s a valid concern. But in all likeliness this group is going to continue to survive. The Cowboys corners don’t take the ball away, but they also don’t give up big plays. They are sometimes too soft and give up too much room to surrender the first down, but they also close well and knock down passes to force teams to punt.

It should be interesting to see how this group performs. The rookie Diggs is going to be a key piece in all this. He has all the raw talent to be every bit as good as Jones, and maybe even better if he makes plays on the ball. Adding Worley is a very smart depth move, and it gives the team another player who can be serviceable on the outside. With both Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis best suited to playing the slot, the Worley signing is important, especially until Diggs can prove he’s ready to take on the majority of reps along the outside.

VERDICT: Because the corner effectiveness depends on so many other factors, including pass rush and a better disguise of coverage, there are some reasons to believe some things will improve here. In all, expect a slight dip, especially while they work out some kinks, but not so much that will be noticeable enough to draw a lot of criticism.

KEY LOSSES: Jeff Heath

ADDITIONS: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

RETURNING FROM INJURY: Nobody

Every year the biggest noise heard around Cowboys Nation is which disgruntled All-Pro safety the team is going to acquire via trade. And each year, fans are let down when nothing actually materializes. And it also didn’t help that the team had a golden opportunity to draft a starting-caliber safety with pick no. 58 in last year’s draft, but opted to go with roster bubble defensive tackle Trysten Hill instead. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

At least the Cowboys threw some resources at the safety position when then signed former Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix this offseason. The team now has two very good coverage safeties in Xavier Woods and Clinton-Dix. Former strong safety starter Jeff Heath left for Vegas with a bankroll of $3 million per year, and while he’s a decent player, landing HHCD for just $750,000 more is good GM’ing by the Cowboys front office.

They also have second-year player Donovan Wilson on their bench and fans are excited to see what he can offer. They’re a little light at strong safety as most of the safety talent are coverage guys, but Darian Thompson is solid good reserve who can step in and smack some people around at times.

VERDICT: It’s not significant, but the team got a little bit better at the safety position.

OVERALL

Across the board, this defense has improved in a lot of areas. When you combine all the pieces together, they got real chance to complement each other and wreck some stuff. And when you consider their offensive is primed for a big year, this just further aids an opportunistic defense that just might take a big step in 2020, and finally crack the top 10 in defense DVOA.