At one point during this Dallas Cowboys season, there was concern that both offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn were coaching their last season with the team. Moore was orchestrating one of the league’s top offenses in the early weeks, and Quinn was set to use his turnaround of the Cowboys defense as a step back into head coaching.
Instead, the Cowboys are banking on the coaching continuity they’ll take into 2022 as another advantage over the division, with Mike McCarthy, Moore, and Quinn all still on the staff.
Quinn not only has a group of ascending players to work with from last year, but five hand-picked rookies from this April’s draft class to keep this defense as a strength. The sight of Dallas’ defense carrying this team through some inefficiencies on offense was very unfamiliar for fans last year, but now with a full offseason program it may be an even bigger part of this team’s identity.
The biggest thing the Cowboys defense will be looking to replicate from their 2021 success is the amount of turnovers created. Two games each against the Giants, Eagles, and Commanders, all with varying levels of uncertainty at quarterback, is one possible advantage here. The Cowboys division rivals may not look forward to going up against Quinn’s defense, but have their own star defenders to contain Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and the Cowboys offense.
After rebuilding the Cowboys own offense with players from all around the NFC East, it’s time to do the same on defense.
Defensive End: DeMarcus Lawrence, Chase Young (WAS), Brandon Graham (PHI), Dorance Armstrong
The Cowboys losing Randy Gregory in free agency came as a surprise this offseason, and added to a list of needs to be addressed. By waiting until the second round to add Sam Williams, the Cowboys are putting a lot of faith in their existing depth chart to take a step up.
Quinn’s defense is very multiple in the way it deploys defensive ends, getting the most out of Micah Parsons in just a part-time pass rush role last season. Parsons figures to be an even bigger part of the defensive line plans this season, but Dallas is also looking for a freshly motivated DeMarcus Lawrence to produce more sacks again. Lawrence has helped a number of defensive ends produce on the right end thanks to the attention he draws on the strong side, and in this scenario Chase Young would be nightmare fuel for offenses.
Young was supposed to be the key piece to a Washington defense that kept them atop the division this season, but they underperformed up until Young tore his ACL in week 10. Brandon Graham comes over from the Eagles talented defensive line in a rotational role, but has the ability to play inside that Quinn could work with as well.
By adding surefire starters around Lawrence with Young and Graham, Dorance Armstrong stays on this roster in a similar rotational role to the one he’s earned so far with the Cowboys. Armstrong won’t be just a situational player anymore with the Cowboys this season, but the every down potential for him to improve as the season goes on is intriguing.
Defensive Tackle: Fletcher Cox (PHI), Dexter Lawrence (NYG), Jonathan Allen (WAS), Osa Odighizuwa
The Cowboys rivals have had to go up against some great offensive lines and rushing attacks in recent seasons, and because of that are invested heavily on the defensive interior.
For a position the Cowboys have undervalued before Quinn’s arrival, they actually have solid depth going into this season. With much more proven players like Cox and Allen in the division though, it’s hard to leave defenders like Chauncey Golston, Quinton Bohanna, Carlos Watkins, or Neville Gallimore on this team. The penetrating three-technique spot is where Quinn has always gotten the most out of his DTs, and Odighizuwa should get the bulk of the snaps here.
In this scenario though, Odighizuwa is reduced to a backup role thanks to the versatility that all three of the other division players bring. Dexter Lawrence is the type of high-motor and athletic defensive tackle that can also play more than just the traditional run stuffer role in any defense.
Linebacker: Micah Parsons, Cole Holcomb (WAS), Haason Reddick (PHI)
The Cowboys have the rest of their offseason workouts as well as training camp to figure out who will play most of the snaps at linebacker besides Parsons. One of the front runners is Jabril Cox, and with him is veteran Leighton Vander Esch who returns on a one-year deal.
Cole Holcomb is a traditional middle linebacker with strong coverage skills, and the type of player that would pair well with Parsons. Holcomb’s ability to occupy space on the second level would allow Parsons to get after the quarterback more often.
Another speedy linebacker with great pass rush potential also finds himself in the East this season, as the Eagles signed Haason Reddick to a three-year deal. Reddick broke out with 12.5 sacks in 2020 with his original team, the Cardinals, and followed it up with 11 as a Panther last season. Similarly to Parsons, Reddick is a blur on the field and is extremely difficult for offenses to account for.
With Parsons, Holcomb, and Reddick, this all-NFC East team has the same lack of true linebacker-type players that Dallas may face this season. The rush ability from this group more than makes up for it though, and a player like Vander Esch could be added for security just as he is on this current Cowboys team.
Cornerback: Trevon Diggs, William Jackson III (WAS), Darius Slay (PHI), Anthony Brown
With Trevon Diggs picking off every NFC East team at least once last season, he’s the obvious choice to lead this all-division team at cornerback. Diggs was a case study in the value of turnovers last season, giving up his share of big plays which was an Achilles heel for the entire defense. While analytics say most drives that produce one or two explosive plays ends in a score, the Cowboys came up with timely takeaways to finish in the top ten for opponents points per game.
Diggs will still have veterans Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis in the secondary this season, with Brown sticking on this roster as a steady performer both on the outside or the slot. The replacements from around the division here are both outside acquisitions by the Eagles and Commanders.
The Commanders signed William Jackson III from the Bengals last offseason, and his knack for finding the ball in the air and playing airtight man coverage make him the perfect tandem to Diggs. Philadelphia traded for Darius Slay in 2020, and have had a 30 game starter at cornerback over his two seasons.
Safety: Xavier McKinney (NYG), Bobby McCain (WAS), Jayron Kearse
The Cowboys have a group of safeties very specific to the defense they want to play, with Jayron Kearse being the jack of all trades and emerging leader on this side of the ball. Kearse’s role as a box player as well as in coverage proved far too valuable last year to leave him off this rebuilt team.
Joining Kearse in place of Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker is Xavier McKinney from the Giants and Bobby Mccain, a free agent signing on last year’s Commanders team who earned a new two-year contract.
Both McKinney and McCain play best as deep safeties, and can take away half the field while playing strong run support. If the Cowboys are going to limit the amount of big plays they give up through the air this season, they’ll need a player to step up with the consistency that these starters from Washington or New York have found.
Final Roster Counts:
When running this exercise for the NFC East offenses, it wasn’t a surprise to see the Eagles finish as a close second to the Cowboys, as they look to give Jalen Hurts every chance to succeed. Hurts put the Eagles two games ahead of the Commanders last season, good for a Wild Card spot as the Washington defense couldn’t carry them through the season.
Whether or not that will change this season with the Eagles roster being even stronger, but the Commanders defense landing five starters on this team, remains to be seen. One thing is clear from the Cowboys finishing with six starters ahead of the pack here, which is that retaining Dan Quinn remains one of the best things they did this offseason.