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Three questions facing the Cowboys defense entering 2021

It’s safe to say there are plenty of question marks surrounding the Cowboys’ defensive unit.

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It’s no secret the Cowboys are looking to upgrade their defense in a big way this offseason. If they want to return to the postseason, they’ll need them to be much better than they were in 2020. As we near the beginning of free agency, here’s three questions currently facing the Cowboys defense.

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1. Who’s in and who's out in the secondary?

For the first time in a few years, it appears we are going to see some big changes in the secondary this offseason. With three members of the 2017 draft class, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods all set to become free agents, the Cowboys have plenty of work to do to rebuild their backend.

There’s still always a chance one, or in a very unexpected scenario two or more, return to Dallas, but their poor performance as a whole in 2020 may have soured the Cowboys on their future. According to Pro Football Focus, all three graded out very poorly on the season.

Awuzie, the Colorado product, gave up 25 catches for 396 yards on the season in just eight games. His PFF defensive grade on the year was 51.9, and his coverage grade was not any better at 52.0 His PBUs went down from a career-high of 11 in 2019 to just three in 2020.

Lewis was more of the same. His overall PFF defensive grade was 48.1 and 48.5 in coverage. He was called for eight penalties, tied for most on the defense with Jaylon Smith. To give Lewis credit, he did play better down the stretch, potentially leading the Cowboys to feel better about his trajectory.

Woods had the highest PFF defensive grade of the three (61.9), but he struggled many times in coverage. Quarterbacks had a 129.0 passer rating when targeting the safety in 2020.

Looking at those stats, it appears it may be time for Dallas to move on. Awuzie is likely to price himself out of the Cowboys’ range, but Lewis or Woods could potentially return on a cheap, short-term deal. But, if they all have played their last down in Dallas, where do they go from here?

Well, the Cowboys will look to revamp their secondary with a combination of free agent signings and draft picks. This week our very own Tom Ryle wrote an article detailing some free agents Dallas could target. Some secondary names of note he mentioned were Richard Sherman, Malik Hooker, Kevin King, and Mackensie Alexander, among others.

When it comes to the draft, there’s a very good chance the Cowboys could spend a premium pick on a cornerback. Whether it’s Caleb Farley or Patrick Surtain II at pick 10, or someone like Jaycee Horn in a trade down, with all the uncertainty at the position it seems close to a sure thing Dallas will address the secondary in round one or two.

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2. What is Dan Quinn’s plan for Jaylon Smith?

Jaylon Smith has a target on his back this offseason. Coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons, the 25-year-old linebacker has became a focus of criticism. However, this criticism comes with fair reason. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith had the worst season of his career in 2020. The polarizing linebacker finished with a 54.2 defensive grade, 16 points lower than what he registered in 2019.

After an extremely unfulfilling year, Smith threw gasoline on the fire when he told his critics to “watch the film” when asked if he would be back next year. In an article published earlier this offseason, we mentioned Bob Sturm of The Athletic watched the film and broke down tons of Smith’s plays from 2020. Spoiler alert, it’s a whole lot of asking yourself the question - what is he doing?

It’s become evident Smith may never be able to return to the player he was in 2018, but just how close he’ll be able to get will determine his worth to the Cowboys. At the end of the day, this offseason question is less about Smith, but more about Dan Quinn. The 50-year-old has been coaching defenses since 1994, but he may face the tallest task of his career this upcoming year trying to fix the Cowboy’s seemingly broken linebacker.

According to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Cowboys are not considering cutting Smith to create salary-cap room. As disappointing as this reality may be to some, it always seemed like the obvious realization. Smith will be on the roster for at least one more season, hoping their new defensive coordinator can work his magic and pull a rabbit out of his hat.

At the moment, we are left in the dark wondering what Quinn’s plans are for Smith in his defense. Over the next couple of months, we’ll learn a lot about how the new DC feels about the polarizing linebacker by what moves the Cowboys make. Regardless, it’s up to Quinn to have a plan, and we’ll just have to wait and see how it pans out.

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3. Will there be a draft philosophy change at safety?

Time and time again, mock drafts around the league have the Cowboys selecting a safety with one of their first three picks. Whether it’s Derwin James in 2018, or Taylor Rapp and Juan Thornhill in 2019, the top safety prospects always seem to be linked to Dallas. Funny thing is, the Cowboys haven’t spent a first- or second-round pick on a safety since they drafted Roy Williams back in 2002.

We’ve seen the Cowboys take a flyer on some safeties in the later rounds, like Xavier Woods in 2017 and Donovan Wilson in 2019, but they never seem willing to spend a premium pick on the position. So, as we reach peak mock draft season in 2021, we yet again see the top safety prospects linked to Dallas. Whether it’s TCU’s Trevon Moherig, who seems like a perfect fit in Dan Quinn’s system, or UCF’s Richie Grant, almost every mock you find will have Dallas selecting a safety with one of their first three picks.

Grant and Moherig would both be excellent selections for the Cowboys, but the question remains, will they really ever spend such a high pick on a safety? New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn may try to push a change in philosophy, but as we’ve seen in recent years, the Cowboys sometimes seem stuck in their own ways.

Dallas has a clear need at the position, so if there was ever a year to break away from their old philosophy, it’s this one.