If Quinn can recreate his defense from Seattle, Cowboys fans will be smiling.
Exactly three months passed from the time Quinn was fired by the Falcons until he was hired to revamp the Cowboys’ struggling defense. In that span, he said he had a lot of frank conversations with former coaches and players on what he could improve.
The result is a defensive system that sounds like it’ll be at least a little bit different from what people got accustomed to seeing during his stint as a head coach in Atlanta and his years in Seattle as a defensive coordinator.
“That included defensive cutups from 2013 to 2020, and that brought me into some of the system changes that I wanted to implement on the next lap around,” he said. “I didn’t want to do just another rinse and repeat. And, so, that was a big piece on what I wanted to do.”
That’s not only encouraging, but awfully interesting for the Cowboys. From the time he was hired, Quinn has long been associated with the 4-3, Cover 3 style of defense that he helped make famous in Seattle – and is also strikingly similar to the scheme Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard ran together for two years in Dallas.
To be clear, a lot of those elements will remain, but Quinn does plan on implementing new looks. That’s perhaps why it raised some eyebrows during his post-draft press conference when he said the Cowboys’ base look would resemble a 3-4, continuing last year’s attempt to look more multiple defensively.
“Certainly a combination of things that, the foundation that has been here, as well as some new things that I wanted to bring into it and how we play and the style that would do that,” Quinn said.
It’s pretty refreshing to see real competition in training camp now.
The Dallas makeover on defense started with the hiring of coordinator Dan Quinn in January, continued into NFL free agency, where the Cowboys signed five defenders and moved through the 2021 NFL draft in which eight of their 11 selections were on Quinn’s side of the ball.
“The thing about us is not only did we create competition, we created it at every level, pretty much every position,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “it’s exactly what we’re looking for. We needed it.”
Of the 13 defensive players who either started or played in more than 40% of the defensive snaps in the Cowboys’ 2020 season finale against the New York Giants, six are gone. Sean Lee and Tyrone Crawford retired. Aldon Smith signed with the Seattle Seahawks. Chidobe Awuzie signed with the Cincinnati Bengals. Xavier Woods signed with the Minnesota Vikings. Eli Ankou remains unsigned.
The Cowboys have brought in free agents, including defensive ends Carlos Watkins and Brent Urban and safeties Keanu Neal, Damontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse. The draft brought in LB Micah Parsons (first round), CB Kelvin Joseph (second), DT Osa Odighizuwa (third), DE Chauncey Golston (third), CB Nahshon Wright (third), LB Jabril Cox (fourth) and CB Israel Mukuamu (seventh).
Whether an intended message or not, those remaining from last year’s defense would be wise to take note of the overhaul. In other words, rent, don’t buy, unless your contract is such that it would be difficult for the Cowboys to make a move.
Cowboys 2021 Free Agency: New Arrivals Aren’t Guaranteed Roster Spots - Jess Haynie, Inside the Star
In the NFL nothing is guaranteed unless you’re Tom Brady.
Consider some of their situations. Nsekhe turns 36 in October and has Brandon Knight, Terence Steele, and now rookie Josh Ball as much younger options at offensive tackle. Unless Nsekhe is considerably better than any of them, why would Dallas go with a geriatric band-aid over a prospect with some upside and a cheaper contract?
Tarell Basham was signed to bring some experience at defensive end but doesn’t have any great track record of productivity; only 3.5 sacks as a season-high thus far. Who’s to say the 27-year-old will be any more deserving of a roster spot than Dorance Armstrong, Bradlee Anae, or rookie Chauncey Golston once the cut deadline comes?
Also 27, Jayron Kearse got a minimal deal to bring some depth at safety and help the special teams. But with Reggie Robinson and rookie Israel Mukuamu in the mix, Dallas could again decide to develop its younger players and not use a valuable roster spot on a journeyman like Kearse.
Money is a key issue for some of these players. Dallas can save around $1 million in cap space on each of Nsekhe and Kearse’s deals by releasing them. They have to outplay the competition to keep their jobs; there’s far less financial incentive with some of the younger talent’s contracts.
There were some mixed reactions to the Odighizuwa pick, but he might surprise.
Here’s what Pro Football Focus revealed about Odighizuwa in their recent article titled 2021 NFL Draft grades for all 32 teams.
“No interior defensive lineman was more dominant at the Senior Bowl than Odighizuwa. He was the highest-graded player at the position both during the week of practice and in the game itself, winning with power and quickness. Odighizuwa also has four seasons of solid-run defense grades on his resume from his time at UCLA.”
The 6-foot-2, 280-pound Odighizuwa recorded 30 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, and 4.0 sacks in seven games for the Bruins as a senior in 2020. The year before, he played in 12 games and posted 46 combined tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks.
According to NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein, Odighizuwa fits best in the NFL as a base end or at the three-technique in four-man fronts. That sort of versatility falls in line with the Cowboys planning to play a base package that looks more like a 3-4 formation. But they will have four-down men in Nickle coverage according to Quinn.
Odighizuwa seems to fit a very similar mold of other recent high-draft choices at defensive tackle in Trysten Hill, the Cowboys second-round selection in 2019, and Neville Gallimore, the team’s third-round pick in 2020.
Grades mean nothing, it’s all about how they develop and contribute.
Jerry Jones, Mike McCarthy and his staff hope that Parsons and his fellow rookies will be the flare that kickstarts an impactful change on D, and based on the depletion the unit suffered last year, the fledgling freshmen will be given tremendous opportunity to do so.
And countless football experts seem to think they have the talent and wherewithal to make it happen. But while a large portion of those in and around the game approved of the men Dallas employed to assist their resurgent efforts, some thought their decision-making throughout the three-day frenzy couldn’t have been much worse.
In fact, one ESPN analyst thought the team’s draft was one of THE worst league-wide.
In his post draft evaluations, draft expert Matt Miller concluded that the Cowboys’ overall performance was just above complete failure.
“I did not like it. I gave them a D. I thought they reached for Odighizwua and Golston. Nahson Wright I had ranked 315th overall — they drafted him at 99. Maybe my board is way way off, but it felt like a big reach for me as they tried to find scheme fits.”
Mel Kiper Jr. though, had a different perspective in response:
“I gave them a B. I like some of the players they drafted. Parsons and Jabril Cox are two linebackers that make plays. Kelvin Joseph was a guy I liked all along through the draft process.
Chauncey Golston is a real good leader, and then Semi Fehoko had a heck of a two years at Stanford — big guy and ran well. They got him down the line further than you thought. So I think Dallas added some good players overall.”
Well, the timeless mantra that surrounds Dallas remains unchanged: no two opinions about this franchise will ever be the exact same.
Will the Cowboys be in the first game of the season?
“The NFL wants to get off to a very strong start after a shaky offseason, and they want a game that will generate buzz in the weeks before the season begins and will be must-see TV to start the season. To schedule the Saints or Bears or Giants here (all Bucs home foes this year) doesn’t seem smart because any of them could be a game that’s over by halftime. Not so Buffalo or Dallas. The Bills could go to Tampa and win the opener, and the Cowboys, with Dak Prescott leading an explosive offense, would be able to go toe-to-toe with the Arians/Brady offense. We’ll see, but those are the two sexiest home foes for the Bucs, and I think one of them will open the NFL’s 102nd season.”
Die-hard football fans know that Buffalo has become one of the league’s most exciting young squads, and Bills fans- spread across the country- are famously rabid, to be sure. But based solely on star power and the ability to lure casual viewers’ eyeballs to the television on a Thursday night, it’s hard to imagine a bigger ratings bonanza than the World Champs versus America’s Team.
The free agent market is still an option for Dallas.
1. Malik Hooker
The Cowboys need all the help they can get in the secondary. So never mind that they’ve already signed Keanu Neal, Jayron Kearse and Damontae Kazee this offseason. Another safety with huge potential wouldn’t go amiss.
For one, Neal is going to play linebacker and Kearse doesn’t have much starting experience. There is room for another to compete for a starting job or contributing role.
Former Colts safety Malik Hooker could be that guy.
Dallas already took a chance on Kazee, who is coming off a season-ending injury. Hooker is in the same boat, but he’s a former first-rounder who looked like an exciting prospect in his early days in Indianapolis. Injuries were the only things that got in the way of his success. If he were to recapture that potential, he could be a valuable starter. At 25 years old, there’s more to give, especially to a Cowboys secondary that is in desperate need of upgrading.
Hooker visited the Cowboys earlier this spring, but the link between the team and the safety cooled when they signed Kazee. Now would be a good time to come back around and see if expectations on either side have changed.
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