The Cowboys celebrating bringing Dan Quinn back as defensive coordinator could have been the start of a positive offseason for a team building off a 12-5 season. Instead, this news feel like it happened decades ago, and the Cowboys have given fans little to be happy about since.
Even with Quinn back on the coaching staff, the Cowboys defense is a serious candidate for major regression in 2022. They created an unsustainable amount of turnovers last season, and much like the Cowboys offense got figured out later in the year, defenses are more susceptible to being schemed against over time.
We covered the need for impact starters in this year’s draft when running through the offense, as well as how last year’s class is still being held up by first-round pick Micah Parsons. Building around their existing talent is a recurring problem for Dallas, but the upcoming draft will give them a chance to do exactly that with Parsons, Trevon Diggs, and possibly DeMarcus Lawrence and/or Randy Gregory.
Dan Quinn will be in the war room for a second year, after drafting several players that fit his scheme well in year one. Here’s a closer look at where the Cowboys defense could be looking for first-round upgrades at each position.
This is an amazingly difficult position to forecast for the Cowboys moving forward. Defensive end is one of the hardest positions for rookie draft picks to make an immediate impact. Remember when the Cowboys were almost pre-determined to take K’Lavon Chaisson in 2020? That pick turned into CeeDee Lamb, a number one receiver if the Cowboys let Amari Cooper walk in free agency. Chaisson has two sacks in two season for the Jaguars.
The Cowboys can avoid going into the draft with defensive end as a glaring need, even if just one of Gregory or Lawrence return. This would give Quinn the flexibility to continue using Parsons in a hybrid pass rush role. The team is also hopeful that second-year players Chauncey Golston and Osa Odighizuwa continue to make strides and earn more snaps on the front four.
George Karlaftis, Travon Walker, David Ojabo, and Jermaine Johnson have all been floated as possibilities at defensive end for the Cowboys at 24th overall. In a top-heavy class for pass rushers, these four names are firmly in the second tier of talent at the position, with tons of upside to develop. By sticking to their normal draft process of addressing needs in the second and third waves of free agency, the Cowboys can avoid a letdown by waiting for one of these edge prospects to reach their potential while they chase more than just the NFC East crown in 2022.
The Cowboys haven’t drafted a defensive tackle in the first round since 1991. It is a team weakness and has been glaring when the defense as a whole is struggling. Now under Quinn, the Cowboys saw Odighizuwa, Carlos Watkins, Neville Gallimore, and Brent Urban all contribute this season. This is an important position in Quinn’s scheme, both for bringing pressure with four and playing on blitz packages to help extra rushers get home.
Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis stole the show at the Combine, running an insane 4.78 second forty yard dash, jumping 32” in the vertical, and 3’ 10” in the broad jump. The forty time and broad jump were positional bests, and the stuff of nightmares for offensive coordinators that schemed against Georgia’s national championship defense this season.
Just based on how this offseason has gone for Dallas, getting our collective hopes up for Davis to break the streak of the Cowboys not drafting a defensive tackle first feels foolish. The nose tackle or 1-techposition has been a spot the Cowboys are far more likely to bargain shop, and this is where Davis will play most of his snaps. Davis’ testing numbers did help show he can be a three-down player, giving his next team something to work with as a pass rusher, while ready to play the run at a high level on day one.
Travis Jones is another high-upside defensive tackle prospect the Cowboys could consider with their first pick, but taking the UCONN product at 24 would be a sign they really believe in the Senior Bowl standout’s ability to develop rapidly. Jones may not make it to the 56th overall pick the Cowboys hold in the second round, but his value is somewhere south of the team’s first-round pick and just north of the top fifty.
This makes defensive tackle a likely position to be passed up in the first round for the Cowboys yet again. To what extent Dallas can re-sign their own free agents this offseason remains to be seen, but fitting Urban, Watkins, or both under the cap would give the Cowboys enough to work with on the interior for this need to be addressed later in the draft.
The last time the Cowboys drafted the same position first in consecutive years was 2005-06, but it was at linebacker with DeMarcus Ware and Bobby Carpenter. If Parsons is Ware in this comparison, the Cowboys could have buyer’s remorse if they double dip at linebacker next month.
Luckily, the depth of this linebacker class will give the Cowboys plenty of options throughout the later rounds. Wyoming’s Chad Muma was a pet cat I mentioned on the last episode of the Hidden Yardage podcast, and Montana State’s Troy Anderson is another name to know for the Cowboys looking for value at linebacker.
The first round names to know in this class are Nakobe Dean and Devin Lloyd. Dean was another key starter on a historic Georgia defense, and there’s merit to any team wanting to add from the Bulldogs’ talent pool in this draft. Dean and Parsons would give the Cowboys a rare combination of range, athleticism, and instincts on the second level.
Lloyd is a somewhat inconsistent player on tape, and his Combine numbers backed this with concerns about his overall athleticism transitioning to the NFL. If the Cowboys end up honing in on Lloyd, his testing may help confirm he’ll be an option at 24.
Picture the most remote place you’ve ever been to alone. Was it a peaceful island, or stunning mountaintop? Chances are, it was a lot less stress-inducing than the Cowboys safety room as currently constructed - which is a lonely Donovan Wilson looking around for friends.
It’s well-documented how little the Cowboys invest at safety, but they’ll need to at least find money to keep one of the upcoming free agents Jayron Kearse, Damontae Kazee, or Malik Hooker if they want any depth before the draft.
We discussed the overall state of the roster entering the draft on this week’s episode of Hidden Yardage on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
Kyle Hamilton will likely be drafted ahead of the Cowboys first pick, but Michigan’s Daxton Hill and Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker fall comfortably in range. Hill is a chess piece type of player that can play down in the box, match up at cornerback, and take away a deep half of the field at safety. Brisker is a more traditional hard-hitting safety, and the type of enforcer Dallas could use.
Potential second-round options include Kerby Joseph out of Illinois and Baylor’s Jalen Pitre. If the Cowboys are truly down to just Donovan Wilson on the depth chart by April though, the risk of waiting for either prospect at 56th overall may be too high. Assuming they find Wilson some friends, the drop off between Hill and Brisker to Joseph and Pitre, paired with the Cowboys long history of not caring about safeties, makes this another unlikely path for the 24th overall pick.
NFL teams can never have enough cornerbacks, and of all the draft picks the Cowboys are hoping take a step up from last year, the time is now for Kelvin Joseph. The plan for Joseph to start opposite Trevon Diggs would give the Cowboys ideal depth with veteran Anthony Brown still under contract and Nahshon Wright entering his second season.
Like most of the positions we’ve covered here, this gives cornerback a narrow path to the top of the board with the 24th pick. Trent McDuffie from Washington and Ahmad Gardner from Cincinnati would be intriguing options to pair with Diggs, both tenacious in man coverage with receiver-like traits when targeted.
The Cowboys best run defense through much of last season was their own offense. Putting game pressure on opposing teams with quick scores allowed their defense to prepare for the pass, and capitalize on mistakes. This wasn’t sustainable through 17 games and a Wild Card round loss, and the Cowboys can expect the best of any offense they face in 2022.
If future offseason periods are going to resemble this one for Dallas, they need to get better at predicting their roster needs and developing talent. That would make this year’s draft a great time to add not just depth at cornerback, but another player capable of stepping in at least part time.
LSU’s Derek Stingley is a dark horse name to keep an eye on, as he did not test at the Combine. Stingley will reportedly be in better condition to perform at the Tigers’ Pro Day as he’s still recovering from injury, but even a stellar performance does little to calm the other concerns. ESPN’s Todd McShay had this to say on the First Draft podcast:
Scouts and in general managers are frustrated, and, to be quite honest, if you study some of those tapes from the last few years like the UCLA game was probably the lowest of the low,” McShay said this week on ESPN’s First Draft podcast. “You know, changing his pursuit angles to avoid contact, getting close but then kind of pulling up and not not mixing it up versus the run. I mean, let’s call it what it is. We all know what it was. 2019, he’s a freshman on a national championship team making a run. And he plays outstanding as you would expect him to, plays his best ball. And that tape, as I’ve said before, compared to any year that you want with Sauce Gardner, especially this past year which was his best tape, I’m taking Stingley.
Every team has a level of risk they’re willing to take with players like Stingley, and getting him on the field in the right environment could make Stingley the latest LSU prospect to take the league by storm in no time. If Stingley falls into the Cowboys lap, it may send the wrong message to players like Joseph and Brown, but the talent level compared to other defenders that may be available is hard to ignore.
The Cowboys will already be relying on multiple draft picks from last year’s haul to help this defense moving forward. Dallas should hope the same from their 2022 class, but getting the pick right at 24th overall is more important than ever. If they want to spend this pick on defense, the direction they go will paint a clearer picture of how Quinn plans to develop this unit in year two.
A pick at cornerback or linebacker may be a true best player available approach, while defensive end, tackle, or safety addresses a need. The short list of names across all of these positions is a lot tighter than the names Cowboys fans are clamoring for on offense, but if anything can be trusted with this team right now, it’s Will McClay’s draft process to bring in first round talent.