When Jerry and Stephen Jones talked with the media on Tuesday during the press conference for Dak Prescott’s new contract, the junior of the two mentioned the need to beef up the Dallas defense now that their quarterback was locked up. That’s been the biggest focus this offseason so far when discussing the Cowboys, who replaced defensive coordinator Mike Nolan with Dan Quinn after a historically bad outing on that side of the ball.
There are question marks at every level of this group. The defensive line has a star in DeMarcus Lawrence, and Randy Gregory was looking better each week, but depth on the edges is a problem, as well as the interior of the line not having any clear top dogs, despite the promising glimpses from both Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore this past season. Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have struggled mightily the last two years, albeit in very different ways, but appear to still be in the team’s plans. And outside of Trevon Diggs and Donovan Wilson, this secondary is riddled with uncertainty.
So what might the Cowboys do? It’s likely that many of their free agent signings will be on this side of the ball, but it’s also common knowledge that their approach under Stephen Jones and Will McClay has been to build through the draft first and foremost. To that end, Dallas has had struggles building up the defense.
Since 2011, the Cowboys have drafted 16 defensive players in the top 100. Just four of them were first-round picks - Byron Jones, Taco Charlton, Morris Claiborne, and LVE; two of those are considered major busts, and while Jones became a top-tier cornerback, he didn’t make it to a second contract in Dallas. Vander Esch is now entering the final year of his rookie deal, and Dallas has to decide whether or not to exercise his fifth-year option.
Of the remaining 12 players, the only ones still on the team are Lawrence, Gregory, Smith, Tyrone Crawford, and of course the guys drafted in the last two years (Diggs, Gallimore, and Hill). Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, both drafted in 2017, have been productive players at one time or another but are set to enter free agency and not expected back.
So can this inconsistent hit rate for Dallas change under Quinn? It’s been made fairly clear that much of the Cowboys’ strategy when it comes to defensive personnel will be up to the former Falcons head coach. Jerry Jones said as much on Tuesday:
“Quinn, in my view, has some great skins on the wall,” Jerry Jones said. “He’s got great experience. He is people-skilled. When you’re around him, you’ll see that. He’s certainly a dedicated football coach, and he’s covered a lot of ground. We have a lot of tape, so to speak, if you were talking about a player. We’ve got really a lot of information to look at to decide how he fits us. He was absolutely perfect for us in this situation to come in here. He’ll be extraordinarily influential in how we put together our personnel on defense. I think he’s got that kind of credibility.”
Luckily, we have six seasons worth of evidence to judge Quinn on. While Quinn’s time in Atlanta featured Thomas Dimitroff as the general manager, it was well known that Quinn was heavily involved in personnel decisions. So let’s look at the defensive players Quinn and his Falcons targeted in each draft and when.
In 2015, Quinn’s first year in Atlanta, he used his first two draft picks on defense, getting edge rusher Vic Beasley and cornerback Jalen Collins. In the fifth round, they landed defensive tackle Grady Jarrett before taking safety Akeem King in the seventh. King was a practice squad player for two years before being cut, as is usually the case for those later-round picks, but Jarrett has blossomed into one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. Collins flamed out due to multiple suspensions early in his career, while Beasley peaked in his sophomore season with 15.5 sacks but struggled to build on that success.
The next year, Atlanta once again spent their first two picks on defense. First was safety Keanu Neal, a popular free agent fit for Dallas now, and then linebacker Deion Jones. They also used their fourth-round pick on linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. Neal, the Falcons’ box safety, got off to a hot start before injuries limited him to just four total games between 2018 and 2019. Jones blossomed into one of the most productive off-ball linebackers in the NFL the last few years, leading the Atlanta defense through thick and thin, while Campbell was a highly productive SAM linebacker who opted to leave after his rookie deal was up.
In 2017, Atlanta continued the trend by spending their first two picks on edge rusher Takk McKinley and linebacker Duke Riley. In the fifth round they also took safety Damontae Kazee. McKinley put up 13 sacks in his first two seasons but fizzled quickly after that. Riley earned a starting job as a rookie but was traded after the 2018 season because another player (more on him soon) outplayed him. And Kazee became a very productive safety for Atlanta right off the bat, and used his ball-hawking skills to snag seven interceptions in 2018.
Speaking of 2018, Atlanta used their first-round pick on receiver Calvin Ridley but made up for it by going defense with their next two picks, snagging cornerback Isaiah Oliver and defensive tackle Deadrin Senat before also selecting linebacker Foye Oluokun. While Oliver and Senat have yet to carve out significant roles, Oluokun supplanted Riley in the starting lineup almost right away.
In 2019, Atlanta focused more on offense but still took cornerback Kendall Sheffield and defensive end John Cominsky in the fourth round and cornerback Jordan Miller in the fifth round. Miller only stuck around on the practice squad, while Sheffield and Cominsky filled rotational roles.
And finally in this past year’s draft, Quinn’s last with the Falcons, they went back to spending their first two picks on defense by snagging cornerback A.J. Terrell, coincidentally allowing Dallas to take CeeDee Lamb with the next pick, and defensive tackle Marlon Davidson. They also took linebacker Mykal Walker in the fourth round.
This reveals some obvious trends for Quinn in his approach to drafting for defense. In the first round, Quinn prioritizes pass rush and secondary help. In fact, every time his Falcons took a defensive player in the top 50 it was either an edge rusher or defensive back, committing lots of draft capital to those two areas. Additionally, Quinn has been able to find starting-caliber linebackers late in the draft, as Jones (taken at 51) was the earliest they ever selected at the position.
Most notable to Cowboys fans here is that 2016 draft when Atlanta took a safety 17th overall. The idea of spending an early draft pick on a safety is almost a foreign concept in Dallas, but Quinn has shown that he is willing to prioritize that position in a way the Cowboys haven’t in a while.
Much of the actual scouting work, both in Atlanta and Dallas, falls to the front office and not Quinn, yet it’s sounding a lot like the newly-hired defensive coordinator will have his say on which defenders Dallas drafts this offseason. And based on his record with the Falcons, it’s a safe bet to assume Dallas will target pass rushers and defensive backs early and often, while finding quality linebackers in the later rounds.