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What the Cowboys’ draft picks tell us about the shape of Dan Quinn’s defense

We have some very interesting tea leaves to read when it comes to the Cowboys defense.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
It’s not just the names that are changing.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

We’ve made it through to the other side. The 2021 NFL Draft is in the books, and we now know who the Dallas Cowboys have added, as well as thirteen UDFAs.

With eleven picks, they really went heavy on defense. The first six were all on that side of the ball, and they took eight defenders in all. While we still have to see how it all shakes out in training camp, the added players give us some very interesting hints as to what Dan Quinn may be planning with this crop that has his fingerprints all over it.

Our own Terrence Watson did a post-draft depth chart, excluding the UDFAs, which is a handy reference to see how things stand, and some implications for how the 53-man roster might shape up.

Could they go heavy at DT?

The team currently has nine ends and nine tackles. But over at The Athletic, Jon Machota did a similar exercise, and he did not include players he feels have no real chance of making the 53-man roster. He comes up with only six defensive ends, and eight defensive tackles. That is pretty much the opposite of how things have stacked up in the past at this time of year.

In one way, it is a welcome development, as the Cowboys have long short-changed the interior of the defensive line. And it makes you wonder if they will build the final roster along the same lines. It opens up a role for big Quinton Bohanna as a first-down specialist, with free agent pickup Brent Urban also a candidate for that. There is even the possibility of them lining up side-by-side on third/fourth and short to try and stop a run up the middle.

There is no doubt that shoring up the run defense was a major priority this offseason. That starts with the DTs, and for once, Dallas has a well-stocked arsenal, not just a bunch of 3-techs they hope can stand up in the run game.

Defensive end has DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory as the expected stalwarts, at least in the nickel defense that is the real base in the NFL. The battle for the backup positions will be fierce. But there is another element to consider.

Using the linebackers

Quinn has stated clearly that free agent addition Keanu Neal will be used as a linebacker. Dallas added Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox in the draft. That puts a squeeze on last year’s starters Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. It also breathes new life into an idea that was bandied about last season but not used much: The designated pass rusher.

That could be the way that Smith can make the biggest contribution. Based on what we saw last season, he was best attacking downhill without having to make sudden changes of direction. If Parsons, Cox, and Neal pan out, the team might just be able to lean into using Smith more as a DPR. And he is not the only one. Quinn has talked with some of the players about using more blitzes, and all of them could be very effective.

That leaves the team with Leighton Vander Esch to sort out now that the team has elected to not pick up his fifth-year option. He may be in as the WILL a lot, especially early in the season. There is also this idea.

I like it, at least for this year. They can figure out the long-term plan for him later.

Long and speedy

The Cowboys took what look like a couple of flyers on defensive backs Nahshon Wright and Israel Mukuamu. In addition to not being on many radars, particularly in Wright’s case, they have one other thing in common: They are both 6-4.

This seems to fly in the face of the way most of the league is headed, looking for shorter secondary players who are better in man coverage. But Quinn, who has been reported as the driving force behind Wright in particular, clearly valued length more.

It probably tips us a bit as to how he plans to use them, although it has to be mentioned that both look to be fast as well as tall. While their height is seen as a disadvantage when covering short, speedy receivers, Quinn may be looking to use their height to better clog up passing lanes. Jourdan Lewis and Kelvin Joseph may be the players used to lock in on shifty slot guys anyway. There may be more rotation in the secondary than we are used to seeing, where the top two corners are on the field almost every play. Mukuamu is also reported to be in line to work as a safety.

However these various elements come into play, there is little doubt that the defense undergoing a makeover to fit Quinn’s plans. He brought in a couple of his former players in Neal and Damontae Kazee. The heavy tilt to defense in the draft clearly reflects the desire to significantly upgrade the performance after the disappointments of 2020. Once we actually get to see things put together in camp, we will begin to find out just what this new approach to defense is all about.