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Cowboys 2021 free agents on defense represent an interesting question

Defense is at the center of conversation this offseason.

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Outside of reaching a long-term agreement with quarterback Dak Prescott, improving their defense is one of the Cowboys’ top priorities this offseason. Last season, even after losing their star quarterback, the Cowboys were held back by the pure incompetence of their defense.

The Cowboys ranked near the bottom of the league in almost every defensive category. Their 29.6 points per game given up (fifth-worst) and 158.8 rushing yards per game (second-worst) were both very alarming statistics. Also, Pro Football Focus had them graded as the fifth-worst defense in the NFL. (52.9)

After a year like that, wholesale changes were needed on the defensive side of the ball. They started when Dallas parted ways with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after just one season. With new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in the fold, more substantial changes figure to follow.

That brings up the question of just how many free agents do the Cowboys want to retain on this historically bad defense?

With this in mind, in a recent article ESPN’s Todd Archer went ahead and broke down which free agents the Cowboys should keep and which they should let walk. On the defensive side of the ball, Archer decided the fate of 10 impending free agents.

Jourdan Lewis, CB: He plays a valuable position in the slot. The ball tends to find Lewis, in good and bad ways. Like Awuzie, he has four career picks, but he is a decent blitzer off the edge. The Cowboys kept Anthony Brown last year on a three-year deal for $15 million. That might be a similar range for Lewis. Keep him.

Xavier Woods, S: He showed so much promise in 2018 and ‘19. Woods, 25, looked like he could develop into a solid safety, if not a Pro Bowl safety. But 2020 was not his finest season, which was the case for most of the Cowboys’ defense. He’s a solid pro and works diligently, but it seems like finding a different option would be better for both parties. Let walk.

Out of the other seven defensive free agents, Archer opines that the Cowboys should keep Joe Thomas, Sean Lee, and Aldon Smith. Archer believes Dallas should let the remaining group of Chidobe Awuzie, Justin March, Tyrone Crawford, and Eli Ankou all walk.

The most notable decision of all may be Archer stating Dallas should part ways with 25-year-old cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. The four-year corner had a down season in 2020, three PBUs, and a 52 PFF coverage grade in eight games, but with so much uncertainty at the cornerback position, letting Awuzie walk will only open the door for a more uncertain future.

Archer seems to think the former second-round pick will do much better on the open market than the Cowboys will be willing to pay.

Chidobe Awuzie, CB: He will do far better on the open market than many will believe even with four career interceptions. Awuzie’s contract year was a disappointment in part because of a hamstring injury. The Cowboys’ 2017 second-round pick, Awuzie has skill, but after four years, will it ever develop in Dallas? Cornerback figures to be a draft priority. Let walk.

The defense we see on the field in 2021 may look a lot different than the one we saw at the end of 2020. And that may not be a bad thing. The team is looking for a major overhaul on that side of the ball that started with their move to hire Dan Quinn. Maybe not keeping some of the same personnel will also be a factor in that overhaul.