The Cowboys defense, including the linebackers, are going through a transformation.
DQ wants to tap into the versatility of the Cowboys’ linebacker corps
After adding several blue-chip linebackers to the roster during the offseason, questions persisted on how the Cowboys would take advantage of a unit with five defenders (Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Micah Parsons, Keanu Neal, and Jabril Cox) with diverse skill sets. It appears Quinn has a plan in place to get each linebacker on the field in a role that plays to the strengths of their respective games.
For instance, Smith, Vander Esch, and Parsons are traditional box linebackers with edge rush ability. Each defender logged a few snaps as a stand-up pass rusher in a variety of sub-package fronts that made the linebacker corps resemble a game of musical chairs.
Meanwhile, Quinn featured Neal and Cox as space players in some packages to take advantage of their versatility. Neal, in particular, spent a lot of time matching up with tight ends in a “Dime” formation that put Parsons at middle linebacker with Jourdain Lewis playing as the Nickel. With Smith and LVE playing on the second-string “Dime” unit, the Cowboys are preparing to unveil a multi-faceted defensive plan that mixes and matches personnel to give DQ more options to attack opponents this fall.
If healthy, Malik Hooker could change the back end of this defense.
Malik Hooker’s time in Dallas could make the Colts regret letting him go.
Hooker will join a unit that’s being commanded by former Seahawks defensive coordinator and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. While his group had major faults in Atlanta, his defense might suit Hooker better due to how he allows safeties to hand back and cover tons of ground deep down the field.
Quinn’s Cover 3-heavy scheme will have Hooker playing far away from the line of scrimmage and roaming around freely. This is how he made his name with the Buckeyes, and it was even how he was able to make a handful of plays, when healthy, in Matt Eberflus’ defense as the lone deep man in a Cover 1 scheme.
Hooker might weigh 215 pounds, but he’s a premium athlete that can cover ground, break up passes, and turn errant throws into interceptions. With how inexperienced Dallas’ secondary is, Hooker will get plenty of snaps. If he stays healthy, he might be able to pick off enough passes to make the Colts questioning why they didn’t retain him at such a low price.
Blackmon is going to be solid, and rookie Shawn Davis has potential as a versatile backup, but the safety position isn’t completely set up for success, and if Hooker stays healthy enough to finally start playing like a first-round pick, Ballard might get some blowback for not giving him one last chance alongside a more established secondary.
A defensive line battle should be interesting.
Bradlee Anae vs Dorance Armstrong
The second battle will be for the backup defensive end role between second-year player Bradlee Anae, who was inactive for most of the 2020 season, and Dorance Armstrong, who has made a minimal impact since being drafted by Dallas in 2018.
I like for Anae to win this spot because I believe he has a lot more upside in the run and passing game than Armstrong has ever shown. Anae has the natural ability to rush the passer as that is what he did so well at the University of Utah, but he will need to prove to the coaching staff he can be effective in the run game to get on the field.
Armstrong seems to not have a specific role with this team so it will be interesting to see how he can play in this new defense that Quinn will be running.
We have more training camp practices coming as well as preseason to give us a glimpse of who will have the upper hand at this backup spot but I believe Anae in the end will come out on top.
The Cowboys have made an active secondary a priority.
Diggs also had the highest Pro Football Focus grade among Cowboys cornerbacks in the regular rotation (62.7).
There were growing pains, too. Opponents targeted him 76 times, second most on the team. He gave up some big plays. He had the temporary stint on injured reserve.
But the Cowboys were impressed by Diggs’ competitive spirit and toughness, as well as his ball skills.
“Every play is all out. He just brings an intensity to it,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s so instinctive. His ball skills are unique. When the ball’s in the air, he’s like another receiver out there.”
Diggs, a second-round draft pick in 2020, once again projects as a starter at cornerback. His one-on-one matchups with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, the first-round pick in last year’s class, have been must-see here in Oxnard.
“We’re going to compete always,” Lamb said. “We came in together. We hold each other to a high standard.”
They’re keeping a tally of big plays against each other. Lamb had a one-handed catch on Diggs in Saturday’s practice. Diggs responded with a pass breakup on another rep, same route.
“It’s tied up. It’s 1-1,” he said.”He (CeeDee) is a heck of a player. He pushes me. I need that.”
Diggs dug into the film this offseason, trying to gain a better understanding of opposing offenses and their tendencies. He also went over all those missed takeaways.
“I dropped a lot of them. If I could get my hands on it, I could catch it, I feel like,” he said. “I feel like all of them were interception opportunities.
The battle between these two corners is going to be a good one.
Kelvin Joseph/Nahshon Wright, CB
We’ve decided to lump these two rookie cornerbacks in Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright together as they both represent hope at the position of greatest need for the Cowboys.
Entering the 2021 NFL Draft, Dallas appeared in a perfect position to land one of the top cornerback prospects in the first round. Unfortunately, both South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II were selected just ahead of the Cowboys’ top pick, forcing the team to trade back and eventually land Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons 12th overall.
Dallas responded by drafting Kentucky cornerback Kelvin Joseph with their lone second-round selection and Oregon State corner Nahshon Wright with their final pick in the third round. Both Joseph and Wright represent the future of the position for the Cowboys along with 2020 second-rounder Trevon Diggs. And we’d love to get a glimpse of that future today.
While the Cowboys are expected to start Diggs alongside veterans in Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis, a stellar camp performance by either Joseph or Wright could put them in a position to compete for a starting role. We hope to see this kind of rapid development from at least one of these rookies as it would help bolster a position that might be the team’s weakest link in 2021.
Troy Aikman: Dak Prescott ‘looks great’ after rehab, Cowboys can be ‘explosive’ in 2021 - Patrik Walker, CBSSports
The Cowboys great is liking what he’s seeing at QB.
Well, the Cowboys did hesitate — regretfully so, team exec Stephen Jones recently confessed — but with the financial tug-of-war now in the rearview, it’s all about Prescott getting back to prime form that saw him lead the Cowboys offense to the No. 1 spot in the NFL. Having now put eyes on Prescott in camp, Aikman believes he’ll pick up right where he left off, and then some.
“He looked great,” Aikman told media on Sunday. “He looked really good. I think every time I see him each year he gets better and better. I know that there is a lot of concern about the ankle and how he’s doing there.
“Heck, it’s probably stronger than his other ankle with everything that he has in it. ...I expect him to have an outstanding season.”
And, with that, he expects the Cowboys offense to again exit the stratosphere.
“I think they’ve got a chance to be really good,” Aikman added. “I really do. I hate for that to sound generic. Offensively, I expect them to be as explosive as anybody in the game.
“I know that last year’s defense was not that good and there’s some concerns there. Until they show it on the field, there’s going to be those questions. But I believe that the players that they have, if health — I hate to say ‘even if they stay healthy,’ that’s true for all teams. But I believe that if the players that they have can play to the ability that we all know that they can play to, I think they should have plenty of defense to complement an explosive offense and win a lot of games.”
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