The Dallas Cowboys had a huge turnaround in defense last season. After surrendering a franchise-worst 473 points in 2020, the team gave up the seventh-fewest points in the league last year. The defense also had a league-leading 34 takeaways on the year.
With the defense comprised of many young players, the Cowboys will return most of their starters, but how do these players stack up? Earlier, we ranked all 11 of the Cowboys' offensive starters, and today we’ll do the same with the defense.
11. SLOT CB JOURDAN LEWIS
The selection of Jourdan Lewis was part of the Cowboys' 2017 secondary remodel that saw them move away from Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox only to replace them with Chidobe Awuzie, Lewis, Xavier Woods, and Marquez White (who never made the team). Lewis is the last man standing of that group as he was given a three-year extension last offseason.
Lewis is a solid slot corner. His lack of size and speed can make him vulnerable in coverage at times, but he’s a fiery competitor and will still show up and make big players now and then.
10. FS MALIK HOOKER
The Cowboys threw darts at the safety position in free agency last offseason and the signing of Hooker is one of them that stuck. A mid-first-round pick in 2017 by the Indianapolis Colts, Hooker entered the league with lofty expectations, but injuries have held him back. With a cheap one-year deal, the Cowboys had nothing to lose and ultimately ended up seeing him play a career-high 15 games last season, only missing time due to COVID.
Dallas re-upped him with a two-year, $7 million deal this offseason. His coverage ability makes him the clear top choice to man the secondary at the free safety position. At 26 years old, he still has a lot to offer as long as his body holds up and he can stay healthy.
9. CB2 ANTHONY BROWN
Brown started his NFL career becoming a fan favorite as this sixth-round pick of 2016 played way beyond expectations as a rookie. But then after setting the bar higher, he struggled to handle outside corner responsibilities the following year. Things got much better for him in 2018 as Byron Jones and Awuzie handled the outside while Brown filled in at the slot. He did a great job in the slot.
The team moved him back outside out of need much to the chagrin of Cowboys fans and it was rocky at times, but to everyone’s surprise, he performed really well last season. He had 17 pass breakups on the season which was fifth best in the league. Last year he was supposed to just hold down the outside until Kelvin Joseph was ready, but things are a little different now. First, we don’t know what is going on with Joseph, and second, Brown doesn’t appear to be ready to give up his spot just yet.
8. RDE DORANCE ARMSTRONG
A fourth-round pick of the Cowboys in 2018, Armstrong was a player that got the war room on their feet. Oddly, he played sparingly over the first few years of his career. But last year, things started to fall into place. He had career-highs in playing time, tackles, and sacks. Armstrong was repeatedly found in the middle of some big splash plays that included blocking a punt that resulted in a touchdown as well as scooping up a fumble and running it in for a touchdown himself.
The Cowboys did add some competition on the edge in the form of free agent Dante Fowler and second-round draft pick Sam Williams, but Armstrong’s growth last season is a good indication that he’s not coming off the field willingly. Like other defenders you’ll see on this list, he’s coming off a big year under Dan Quinn’s tutelage and he may just be scratching the surface.
7. MLB LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH
The Cowboys personnel department looked like geniuses when Leighton Vander Esch was running around howling in 2018. He led the team with 140 tackles and even added a couple of picks for good measure en route to an All-Pro rookie season. Unfortunately, injuries reared their ugly head and LVE has had trouble staying on the field. He did play in all games last year for the first time since his rookie season and his performance was solid.
The front office brought Vander Esch back on a cheap, one-year deal and he should serve as the team’s middle linebacker for the upcoming season. The team has a couple of young LSU linebackers on their roster in Jabril Cox and Damone Clark, but injuries will delay their readiness. As long as Vander Esch’s health holds up, he should remain a viable starter for this defense.
6. DT1 CARLOS WATKINS
Not only did the Cowboys hit on multiple low-cost free agent signings last year, but they also doubled down on their investment by bringing some of them back for another stint. Watkins is one of them as he quietly played out his rookie deal with the Houston Texans before joining Dallas last season.
Watkins is a good run defender that possesses good length to help him shed blocks. He’s a high-motor player who can attack at various points on the line of scrimmage. He was a perfect candidate for what Quinn likes and it proved valuable for the Cowboys' defense as Watkins had career-highs in games started (14), tackles (32), and tackles for losses (5). He also had his first-ever interception that he returned 29 yards for a touchdown.
5. DT3 NEVILLE GALLIMORE
After a solid rookie season, the Cowboys' third-round pick of 2020 was poised to take a step forward last year, but unfortunately, a dislocated elbow suffered in preseason kept him out for the first 12 games of the year. In all, Gallimore only played five games where he registered 13 tackles, including three of them for losses.
This year, he’s added 16 pounds of muscle and is hoping to bring some push along the interior defensive line. With second-year player Osa Odighizuwa also hoping to make strides this season, the defensive tackle spot will bring some heavy competition but don’t be surprised if Quinn can bring out Gallimore’s greatness.
4. SS JAYRON KEARSE
Of all the Cowboys' free-agent signings last season, none was more impactful than safety Jayron Kearse. After spending his first five years with Minnesota (four) and Detroit (one) where he played the majority of his reps on special teams, the veteran safety found new life in Big D. Kearse not only had career highs in basically every splash-making category like tackles for loss, QB hits, sacks, and interceptions, but his one-season total in Dallas was higher in those categories than his previous five seasons combined.
Recognizing his value to the team, the Cowboys re-signed Kearse to remain their starting strong safety. He’s very good at the line of scrimmage but has shown that he can be valuable in coverage as well. If last year wasn’t a fluke and he keeps playing at that same level, Kearse could make a serious push for a Pro Bowl spot in 2022.
3. CB1 TREVON DIGGS
Not only did the Cowboys get a gift in CeeDee Lamb in round one of 2020, but they scored again by landing Trevon Diggs with the 51st overall pick. Diggs had a solid rookie season, starting in 11 games and coming away with three interceptions, but no one could have predicted what would happen next. Last season, Diggs had what felt like a fairytale season where he picked off a ridiculous 11 passes, the most by any player in over 40 years when another Cowboys corner, Everson Walls, had the same amount of interceptions back in 1981.
While Diggs was sensational at times, he also had some mishaps which led to some big plays. Opponents continued to challenge him all season long and came out on the wrong end most of the time. He’ll be looking to show the world that he can be a true shutdown corner and will be one of the team’s most talented defenders this upcoming season.
2. LDE DEMARCUS LAWRENCE
After selecting Zack Martin in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Cowboys saw an opportunity to grab another eventual All-Pro player by trading up in round two to get DeMarcus Lawrence. Initially, it looked like the team might’ve overpaid as injuries slowed his production early on. Then in 2017, Lawrence put together an amazing season where he compiled 14.5 sacks, 58 tackles, and four forced fumbles.
The Cowboys rewarded Tank with a five-year, $105 million deal in 2019, but re-structured his deal this offseason to save the team some money. While Lawrence hasn’t sniffed the big sack numbers he had five years ago, he continues to be extremely disruptive along the defensive line.
1. SLB MICAH PARSONS
It’s hard to imagine that a little over a year ago Micah Parsons was not on this Cowboys team. But then in what could be one of the team’s best draft picks in a long time, the team suddenly was blessed with one of the league’s top defensive players. Parsons had an All-Pro rookie season where he finished with 84 tackles and 13 sacks. He was phenomenal as a linebacker and phenomenal as an edge rusher. He even held his own in coverage whenever asked. Honestly, there was nothing this kid couldn’t do last season.
The Cowboys still have a lot of questions at linebacker this season, so we should expect Parsons to continue to chase ball carriers around. That being said, there is no way Quinn won’t utilize him plenty in attacking the quarterback. It will be tough to match a very impressive rookie season, but if anyone can do it, it’s this guy. Don’t be surprised if Parsons takes home the crown for Defensive Player of the Year this season.