Another year, another group of players for the Dallas Cowboys. Last year saw the beginning of a new crop of defensive starters as several first-year Cowboys stepped into new roles. From a couple of rookies to well-traveled veteran free agents, last year’s version of the defense looked quite different from the previous. And that is a good thing considering the 2020 defense was historically bad.
What should we expect from this year’s group? Earlier, we examined the offensive starters and asked ourselves which player is most likely to lose his starting position? Today, we’ll examine the defensive side of the ball. We’ve grouped the players into three categories: those who are marked safe (locks), mostly secure, and finally at risk of losing the starting gig. Some of these decisions are based on the talent of each starter, but then others have more to do with the level of depth behind them at their respective position.
You couldn’t have scripted a better individual rookie season for last year’s first-round pick, Micah Parsons, and now fans are anxiously awaiting what we’re going to see in year two. We don’t know where all his reps will be coming from as this hybrid linebacker/pass-rusher will attack opposing offenses from all angles, but what we do know is that he’s the team’s most talented defensive player.
It was touch and go there for a while whether Lawrence was even going to be wearing the star this season, but thanks to some contract renegotiating he’s sticking around. While Tank is scrutinized for his low sack numbers, he remains one of the top edge setters in the league and nobody is taking the starting left defensive end position from him anytime soon.
The former Alabama corner is coming off a breakout season where he racked up 11 interceptions, earning All-Pro honors in just his second year in the league. That’s a great start. Diggs still has a lot to prove before he can earn a reputation as a lockdown corner, but he’s easily the Cowboys' top corner.
The Cowboys scored big when they signed this undrafted safety to a cheap one-year deal. What initially thought was just a depth add turned out to be a player who flirted with a Pro Bowl season last year. Now, Kearse is firmly planted as the team’s starting strong safety adding another much-needed asset to this defense.
Oh, come on, Anthony Brown a lock for a starting position? What kind of bill of goods are we trying to sell you here? Brown falls in this group for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve already mapped out how the Cowboys might’ve lucked into finding a potential long-term solution with Brown at cornerback, so there’s a line of thinking that he might be a good player. But more than that, Brown has two separate paths to keeping his starter spot. That’s because even if second-year corner Kelvin Joseph suddenly emerges and beats him for the other outside corner spot opposite Diggs, Brown then becomes the team’s slot corner over Jourdan Lewis. Now, Lewis himself is a pretty good slot corner, so anything’s possible, but for Brown to lose out on both spots seems highly unlikely.
Leighton Vander Esch
It’s been a bumpy ride so far when it comes to Vander Esch’s career. He was smoking hot out of the gate, but health has transformed him into an entirely different player. He is coming off a solid year, and while it wouldn’t take much for someone to surpass him in the starting lineup, the Cowboys just don’t have enough viable bodies right now. For that reason, LVE’s starting spot is relatively safe.
The veteran nose tackle flew under the radar last year due to so many other defensive players standing out, but Watkins was a quality piece along the interior defensive line. The Cowboys have second-year player Quinton Bohanna and rookie John Ridgeway who will try to dig into his reps, but if Watkins continues to play like he has, those reps won’t come easy.
Like Kearse, Hooker was a low-cost signing who outperformed his contract so well that the team decided to bring him back for more. While Hooker didn’t have the impact that Kearse did, he was very reliable in coverage and that’s an area on the roster that doesn’t offer a lot of depth. It would take a surprise like UDFA rookie Markquese Ball to suddenly ball out for his starting spot to be in jeopardy.
Gallimore is arguably one of the Cowboys' top interior defensive line players, so why is his job at risk? That’s because second-year DT Osa Odighizuwa is primed to challenge him for reps at the 3-tech position. This will be a good battle to monitor as both players had nice rookie seasons. Gallimore’s second year was stymied by an elbow injury and that allowed Odighizuwa to get some valuable reps, so while Gallimore has been in the league longer, Odighizuwa has logged more overall playing time. And they’ve both played more reps than Trysten Hill who is entering his fourth season and the final year of his rookie deal. It’s unclear how exactly the distribution of playing time will shape out, but regardless of who the starter is, the team will have some good options at the position.
The departure of Randy Gregory left an open starting spot at right defensive end. And considering the Cowboys gave Armstrong a two-year, $13 million extension this spring, he looks like the front runner for that job. The team does have some other players who will challenge him for reps including Tarell Basham, Dante Fowler, and rookie Sam Williams. While Fowler and Williams will likely be reduced to pass-rush exclusive roles, that leaves Basham as the only real competition to challenge Armstrong for the starting spot.
Lewis was thrown into the fire his rookie season, only to be relegated to a bench role the following two seasons. With Brown having to cover the outside these past two seasons, Lewis has found a home as the team’s starting slot corner. That’s likely where he’ll remain this season unless someone steps up on the outside (Kelvin Joseph, Nahshon Wright, or DaRon Bland), moving Brown back to the slot.
Which Cowboys defensive player has the greatest chance of losing his starting spot?