Since the Cowboys hired Dan Quinn to be their new defensive coordinator, we’ve taken an an in-depth look at both the front seven and coverage schemes that Quinn uses, as well as the ones defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr., primarily uses. Now comes the most important part: how well does the current roster fit that kind of scheme?
Quinn, like Mike Nolan before him, will naturally talk about shaping the scheme to fit the personnel, but every coach has their own preferences that override that to some degree. Even Bill Belichick, who’s widely regarded as one of the most adaptable coaches in football, likes to use man coverage on nearly every play. So while Quinn will likely change his scheme a bit to fit the talent on this roster, here’s where the Cowboys currently stand as far as who can play right away and which spots need an upgrade, broken down by position.
2020 Players: Neville Gallimore, Antwaun Woods, Trysten Hill, Tyrone Crawford, Justin Hamilton, Dontari Poe, Eli Ankou, Walter Palmore, Ron’Dell Carter
The defensive tackle spot is likely the area where the Cowboys have the most work to do. Of the nine names above, Poe has already been cut and four others - Woods, Crawford, Ankou, and Carter - are on expiring contracts. Woods will be a restricted free agent, while Carter is an exclusive rights free agent, so bringing those two back should be easy if Dallas wants to.
In both cases, they probably should. Woods was the best run stopper Dallas had this year, and even though it isn’t saying much he proved capable of executing two-gap responsibilities on running downs. While the Cowboys will go back to more one-gap principles under Quinn, they’ll still need some guys capable of managing two gaps. Woods fits that mold, and Gallimore got a taste of it too although he’s much better when tasked with simply getting penetration.
Carter, on the other hand, is a raw prospect the coaching staff liked enough to give him a hefty signing bonus when they scooped him up as an undrafted free agent last year. He has a similar athletic profile to Crawford in that he can play both inside and outside, something that is an essential piece to Quinn’s base front, the under. Crawford, on the other hand, will be 32 by the end of the 2021 season and may even contemplate retirement at this point.
Gallimore and Hill are interesting fits in this defense, since both offer a lot of value on pass rushing downs. Hill showed significant improvement this year before getting hurt, especially as a penetrating 3-technique, while Gallimore seemingly took a step forward each week. Both can be fits as a 3-technique, a core part of Quinn’s defensive line, while Gallimore offers potential as a one-gapping 1-technique on passing downs as well.
There’s also Gerald McCoy, who originally signed with Dallas last year but was waived after a season-ending injury. Stephen Jones has insinuated that McCoy will be back in the fold, which primarily gives Dallas another penetrating 3-technique. Unless the Cowboys intend to move Gallimore exclusively into a 1-technique role (which would be a mistake, in my opinion), McCoy’s return could create a logjam there. But having too many penetrating interior tackles is a good problem to have.
EDGE and LEO
2020 Players: DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Aldon Smith, Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, Everson Griffen
The Cowboys are pretty well stocked on the edges, thankfully, but it will undoubtedly be interesting to see what Quinn does here. In Seattle, Quinn typically only made use of one LEO at a time, except in the bear front that he invariably used. However, Quinn changed that up a bit more in Atlanta with both Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley.
In Dallas, Quinn will inarguably be inheriting the best stable of edge rushers he’s had. Lawrence is an elite edge rusher, evidenced by the fact that he finished top ten in both pass rush win rate and run stop win rate in 2020, all while dealing with the adjustment to more two-point stance use. Beyond Lawrence, Gregory was looking like an absolute monster by the end of the year, and he finished third on the team in pressures despite missing the first six games of the year.
There’s also Smith, who finished second on the team in both sacks and pressures to mark a triumphant return to the NFL. But his contract is up and the Cowboys ability to sign him could be tricky. If the Cowboys do bring him back, Smith would be a great chess piece for Quinn. Playing around 280 pounds in 2020, Smith has the size and athleticism to play nearly any spot on the defensive line, including as a stand-up LEO. That kind of versatility would make him an integral part of this pass rush for Quinn.
If not, though, Quinn still has two great edge rushers in Lawrence and Gregory. It would seem that Gregory is a better fit for the LEO position, although it wouldn’t be a surprise to have both guys line up at the spot at the same time throughout the season. But Lawrence’s aforementioned prowess in run defense makes him a bit more versatile in this scheme too.
That leaves Armstrong and Anae. Armstrong clearly had the heart of Quinn’s predecessor, who often used him as a SAM linebacker of sorts in various base fronts. Armstrong began playing a bit better in the latter half of the year, but it wasn’t enough to really convince anyone he’ll be a major player going forward. Anae spent most of his rookie year on the inactive list, but he showed a ton of positional versatility in college and would seem to be an ideal fit as a SAM linebacker in Quinn’s base under front, playing on the line of scrimmage as a potential blitzer. Don’t expect Dallas to do a whole lot at this position besides re-signing their own guys or adding depth.
2020 Players: Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, Justin March
While the Cowboys have more questions to answer at the defensive tackle and secondary positions, what they do with these linebackers might be the most interesting. Lee is expected to retire and possibly go right into coaching, while Thomas and March are scheduled free agents. And of course Vander Esch and Smith have been the subject of intense scrutiny for poor play the last two years.
The way that the defensive linemen operate in Quinn’s scheme is designed to make things easy on their linebackers, rarely letting offensive linemen get to the second level. As such, Quinn’s defense calls for athletic, fast linebackers that can take advantage of this and fly all over the field. In theory, that would fit Smith’s play style to a tee, although many of his criticisms the last two years have stemmed from a perceived dip in athleticism. Vander Esch, a bigger and slower linebacker, may be a square peg in a round hole, although he found success in the same general scheme in his rookie year. Perhaps that’ll help him more, but Vander Esch’s biggest problem is his health: the linebacker has played as many games in his first three seasons as Lee did in his first three seasons.
Thomas and March will be ones to keep an eye on, as they were both primarily special teamers in their time in Dallas. But Bernard and Gifford both seemed to carve out core special teams roles in 2020 under John Fassel, so the Cowboys’ handling of Thomas and March could largely come down to Quinn’s evaluation of how they’d fit in his defense should they ever be called upon. Simply put, the linebacker corps is one big question mark right now as Quinn comes aboard. Good luck figuring it out, Danny!
2020 Players: Trevon Diggs, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, CJ Goodwin, Rashard Robinson, Saivion Smith, Deante Burton, Daryl Worley, Chris Westry
The Cowboys have a lot of decisions to make here. Awuzie and Lewis are both impending free agents, and while each had their various moments in 2020, neither really proved they deserve to be brought back. Brown is under contract, but similarly didn’t prove that he should be counted on as a long-term starter, while the foursome of Robinson, Smith, Burton, and Westry are all depth guys who were forced into action due to injury.
Quinn’s defense, which primarily uses Cover 3 and Cover 1 shells, seeks physical corners (that are preferably big, but that’s not a sticking point for Quinn) who can make plays on the ball. That’s a huge positive for Diggs, the Cowboys’ de facto top corner. Read what Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network had to say about Diggs prior to the draft last year:
Trevon Diggs fits the profile of a Cover 3/press man cornerback at the next level. Diggs’ length makes him an ideal player to play press at the line of scrimmage and put him in positions to physically challenge receivers to stack the edge in run support. Diggs’ lack of consistency in run support is frustrating and he can be hit or miss locating the football; so the perfect system is one that requires him to play bail technique and operate primarily in a deep third as a perimeter CB.
Diggs showed with his play that those issues in both run support and locating the ball weren’t representative of his skill, as he led all Dallas defensive backs in both solo tackles and interceptions. Standing at 6’1” and just over 200 pounds, Diggs has the size and frame to be the type of corner Quinn likes, and he has the physicality and ball skills to match. While Diggs is a much better press man corner, he should still thrive in this scheme regardless of the coverage.
Beyond Diggs, though, it’s anyone’s guess. It seems likely that Brown will be one of the other starters alongside Diggs, but even that isn’t set in stone. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Dallas try and double dip here by getting someone in both free agency and the draft, potentially even taking a cornerback - perhaps Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II or Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley? - with their tenth overall pick.
2020 Players: Xavier Woods, Donovan Wilson, Darian Thompson, Brandon Carr, Steven Parker, Reggie Robinson II
While it’s been established that Quinn doesn’t use Cover 3 nearly as much as Kris Richard did in Dallas, it’s still the same general concept: he’s looking for a guy that can play in the middle of the field and one who can play closer to the box. Luckily for the Cowboys, the latter spot is pretty clearly taken by Wilson, who came on hot this year when finally allowed to play. Wilson’s thumper style of defense is what made Kam Chancellor thrive in this role with Seattle, although Wilson still needs to grow before he’s in that conversation. Still, this seems like a pretty obvious fit.
Beyond that - much like the cornerback position - there’s a lot of question marks. Woods will be a free agent after a really bad 2020 campaign, and he didn’t exactly light the league on fire as the middle of the field safety under Richard in 2018 and 2019 either. Scheme familiarity might result in a return for Woods, assuming he likely wouldn’t cost much to bring back, but nobody should be counting on Woods to be the unquestioned starter.
Robinson is an interesting case, as he played cornerback at Tulsa but was drafted to play safety. Will he continue in that position now that the scheme has changed? Robinson had a similar play style to Diggs, so it wouldn’t be unthinkable for him to move back to corner now. Parker got some love from Mike McCarthy throughout the season, but he’s clearly more of a depth guy, while Thompson’s roster spot should be in serious danger after a pretty disappointing year.
Basically, the Cowboys will need to spend the offseason trying to identify their next starting free safety, since Wilson should more or less have the strong safety role locked up for now. As for what Dallas will actually do, there’s no real answer yet. But there isn’t a real positional fit on the roster right now.