clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How the Cowboys’ camp battles are playing out on the defensive side of the ball

If you thought the Cowboys offense had some interesting battles to watch, hang onto your posteriors.

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp
Ron’Dell Carter may be a sleeper.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys offense has some very interesting camp battles underway for backup positions. But those are outdone by the battles on defense. With the team still smarting from the ineffective performance last season, they brought in Dan Quinn and a metric ton of new players to try and fix the issues. Now we are seeing so many fascinating battles play out, and unlike on offense, this includes some starting jobs as well.

Pass rushers

We know DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are the nominal starters. (Nominal means that Gregory may not actually be on the field for first down plays when the Cowboys are making sure they are not going to get gashed on the ground, but will be front and right of center for passing downs.) Tarell Basham looks to be a solid bet for the next man in the rotation.

Then it gets very interesting indeed. Draftee Chauncey Golston is a player that may be getting lined up for an IR stash as he is still on the PUP list. Dorance Armstrong has had a good camp to date, but we have seen him do so before only to be rather mediocre in the regular season. There was a lot of hope for Bradlee Anae coming into camp, but he has not made that much of an impact, and has also missed some time, including not making the trip to Canton for the HOF game. That may be opening a door for Ron’Dell Carter, who has flashed some so far. Even Azur Kamara, a guy many don’t even realize is on the squad, has started to come on a bit and had two QB hits in Canton.

Who rounds out the group after the top three is very much an open question. The remaining preseason games could go a long way toward answering things.

Interior defensive line

Neville Gallimore may be the foundation things are built around in only his second season. Trysten Hill and Justin Hamilton are the only other returning veterans from last year, which tells you a lot about how bad the defensive tackle situation was.

That means that a lot of new players will be called on, especially with Hill also a player that might be headed to another year on IR as he has yet to be cleared to practice. Brent Urban seems a very solid bet to be in contention to not only make the team but could well start besides Gallimore. And the HOF game saw some very encouraging work from draftees Osi Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna. Many people thought Carlos Watkins was just an insurance signing, but he has had some good days in camp and may have a bigger role. Hamilton is a possible sleeper.

Complicating things is that Dan Quinn loves to move his defensive lineman around. Gregory has been seen lining up as a 3-tech, and there have been sightings of DTs rushing from the outside. Just like on offense, position flexibility gives players a leg up on this team.

There is still plenty of time for some of these players to lock down a roster spot. And it is hard to point to any that are definitely out of the running. Even Hill could come on strong if he is ever activated.

Linebackers

Since the conclusion of the draft, many roster projections have featured the same five names: Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox, and Keanu Neal. Those have been seen by most as the only five linebackers the team will carry, which is supported to a certain extent by only having three others in camp, Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, and Anthony Hines III.

Well, color me skeptical. Linebacker is a good position for special teams resources, and it’s doubtful they want to use one of them if they only have five on the roster. Expect them to carry six this year as John Fassel will want a linebacker to use on kick coverage.

Bernard was the front-runner for that job, but now he is nicked up. Gifford had a good showing against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Canton. Hines is probably a long shot, but he has flashed. He should be a priority for the practice squad if he doesn’t break through.

Parsons and Vander Esch should be the starters in the nickel, for what it’s worth.

Cornerback

You can never have too many good cornerbacks. The Cowboys are doing pretty good on the many. Now they have to figure out if they are enough good ones.

Trevon Diggs is locked in as a starter and seems to be benefiting from his work against CeeDee Lamb after a strong rookie campaign. Kelvin Joseph has apparently made up the lost ground from missing so much of the OTAs. If there is a surprise standout in this bunch, it is Maurice Canady, who seems to get a pick every practice and snagged one in the scrimmage against the Los Angeles Rams. Sitting out under the COVID provisions did not hurt him a bit as far as his on-field performance.

Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are both back from last season, but they don’t get a lot of love from the fans. That is unimportant. Only the opinion of the staff matters. What is still being worked out is the role of each. And they face an interesting challenge in OTA darling Nahshon Wright, who is getting a lot of work and probably makes the roster from a combination of that work and his draft status.

That could leave Reggie Robinson II as the odd man out, even if they go deep and carry six corners. He is certainly working hard to earn a spot. There is also a bit of a sleeper in recent signee Kyron Brown, who also flashed a bit in the HOF game. C.J. Goodwin will likely make the roster, but he would be almost strictly a special teams ace and that would be a spot carved out of the overall defensive unit.

Who starts outside of Diggs is just as much up for grabs as who is the last man in on the roster.

Safety

With the team very likely to go heavy at cornerback, they may just roll with four safeties, and could conceivably just carry three, although that seems rather thin. Donovan Wilson is the clear leader at strong safety, and Damontae Kazee is probably the starting free safety.

Darian Thompson is a player many overlook, but he has been more than solid in camp. The team signed Malik Hooker earlier in camp. Like Kazee, he is coming off a serious injury and has not yet been cleared for practice. When healthy, he has the talent to be a big help and can play both free and strong safety. We know how the team loves it some position flex.

Jayron Kearse and Israel Mukuamu also could factor in. Kearse’s experience could earn him a spot, but Mukuamu may benefit from a year on the practice squad as he is being converted from corner to safety.

The most likley scenario is that Wilson, Kazee, Thompson, and Hooker will be the safeties at the start of the season, but that is not stated with great confidence.

Special teams

We can’t forget the specialists, because the situation there is interesting. Neither Bryan Anger nor Greg Zuerlein, both Fassel favorites, have practiced at all. Last year’s starting punter, Hunter Niswander, is handling both the punting and placekicking duties. The team has almost completely eschewed field goals in practice. That led to a rather dismal one for three performance by Niswander in the HOF game.

But in addition to averaging a more than acceptable 50 yards per punt against the Steelers, he seems to boom kickoffs pretty well. And that adds an interesting dimension to things. The team may find some value in having a punter who can also let Zuerlein save his leg just for field goal attempts. Don’t be surprised if Niswander beats out Anger because of that.

The overall view of this is that there will be a lot of calls for the staff to make, and we may be in store for a surprise or three.