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Projecting the Cowboys 2021 defensive starters is really impossible

The offense is easy. But the other side of things...

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants
It’s complicated.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Despite having nothing but OTAs and minicamp to go on, at this time of year it usually is easy to project most of the starters for NFL teams. Most of them are returning vets whose jobs aren’t really in question. Add in a key free agent or two and a couple of high draft picks, and you have a very good idea of who will be on the field for the first play of the first game on both sides of the ball. If you are trying to project the starters for the Dallas Cowboys, however, that is only half true. The offense is a piece of cake. Barring the dreaded “i” word, all but one of the expected starters are well established, and the final one, Tyler Biadasz, is clearly the plan for this year after having started four games in 2020.

On the other side of things, the defense is a real can of worms.

The defense was a huge problem last year. After that debacle the Cowboys ditched Mike Nolan and brought in Dan Quinn and several new assistants to right the ship. More significantly, they released or let walk several players including Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, Antwaun Woods, and Tyrone Crawford retired. Free agency and the draft brought a load of new blood for Quinn to work with, and some of the players who were retained are not at all secure, especially when trying to figure out who starts.

In looking at the defensive roster, there are only three players that seem certain to be starters: DeMarcus Lawrence, Trevon Diggs, and Donovan Wilson. The other eight spots cannot be projected with any confidence whatsoever.

Here is a rundown of the questions and options the team has.

Edge rusher

Many may wonder why Randy Gregory was not included in the names who are certain to hold a starting job. Gregory is a major part of the defense, but he is the first of several examples of how the changes Quinn is incorporating will affect things. OTAs hinted that Gregory may be used primarily as a designated pass rusher, or DPR. That means he is likely to be off the field on first downs, so technically he would not be listed as a starter. Instead, the team may use a lineman who is more of a run-stopping specialist. Keeping Gregory’s snap count down so he is fresher as the game progresses is also a factor to consider.

The unofficial roster at DallasCowboys.com has Brent Urban listed as a defensive end. While that may reflect how they will use more of a 3-4 alignment under Quinn, it also may be an indication that Urban could be the starter for the team, even though he could be expected to see less snaps than Gregory. The specialization and desire for position flexibility that was at times on display in the OTAs could really muddle the whole concept of what being a starter means. It might be more accurate to try and identify the eleven core players who represent the best defense in the most situations. Those are passing downs in today’s NFL. However, that is not how things are talked about most of the time.

Interior defensive line

If you have Lawrence as one starting lineman, that leaves two spots for defensive tackles in either a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment, unless Lawrence is considered more an OLB in the 3-4. As that shows, it just gets more complicated trying to sort out the actual roles on the field. To fill those two DT spots, the leading contenders right now are Neville Gallimore, Trysten Hill, Osa Odighizuwa, and Quinton Bohanna. Bohanna is a true nose tackle, which is one more layer of complication. He might be a first down specialist to stop the run, which would make him a starter despite really being a role player who would be expected to see less than half the snaps, perhaps much less. Gallimore is the most likely DT to start. But Hill and Odighizuwa may get the call depending on how all stack up against the run and pass respectively. And if Lawrence is lined up outside more as an OLB, then three of the DTs could be on the field at once.

Yeah, I really don’t know, either.

Linebacker

If you didn’t catch the hint about a couple of specific players when mentioning veterans who were not secure, then let’s be blunt and say that Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are fighting both their very poor showings last year and the potential changes under Quinn. They are obviously in the mix, but unlike most returning starters, they are going to have to earn starting jobs. With first-round draft pick Micah Parsons, fellow rookie Jabril Cox, and Quinn’s former player Keanu Neal, switching from safety to linebacker this year, it is not just possible that at least one of Smith and Vander Esch will be watching from the sidelines to start the first defensive series of games, it may be the most likely outcome. If Quinn uses a 3-4 alignment with a couple of what are now considered defensive ends in the OLB roles, then Dallas will only have two true linebackers on the field to start. If the same kinds of issues that we saw last year are still showing up with Smith and Vander Esch through camp, then both may be watching rather than starting.

Cornerback

This position is one of the clearest examples of how the very definition of starter has become muddied. Although it is seldom deployed on the first defensive play of the game, the nickel package is the true base defense for almost all NFL teams. That makes the slot corner a more important player than the OLB they come in to replace.

Even given that, who lines up with Diggs is completely unsettled. The team probably hoped they would duplicate the success with him by drafting Kelvin Joseph in the second round. Those hopes were dimmed by Joseph reportedly showing up out of shape, then missing ten days of the offseason due to a COVID quarantine. He now has ground to make up to break into the starting lineup. Further, Nahshon Wright used the opportunity of the extra snaps he got when Joseph was not available to turn some heads in the OTAs. Now add in that Anthony Brown made it clear with his play that he is not going quietly. Some are also saying that Maurice Canady is a real sleeper to break into the mix.

Speaking of the slot or nickel corner, Jourdan Lewis is seems the most likely to “start,” but he is another player that has to fend off Brown. It is shaping up to be a dogfight for position on the depth chart.

Safety

It is very tempting to pencil in Demontae Kazee as the starting free or deep safety, but he is still coming off a severe injury. He looked to be a full go in OTAs, but those were OTAs. It’s still likely he will be the starter, but Jayron Kearse, Israel Mukuamu, and Reggie Robinson II all will be coming hard after the job. Mukuamu in particular is an intriguing player to watch. He just didn’t play like a 6-4 converted cornerback in his first work with the Cowboys.

This is a very fluid and uncertain lineup to sort out. Training camp and preseason are going to riveting as a result.