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Projecting how new Cowboys rookies could have helped defense in 2021

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has his fingerprints all over the Cowboys defense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Sacramento State at Fresno State Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After looking at what this year’s draft class could have done to spark the Cowboys offense during last season, it’s time to do the same for Dan Quinn’s defense. Quinn’s first draft with the Cowboys brought in eight new defenders, most notably first-rounder Micah Parsons.

The Cowboys have a lot to look forward to in year two under Quinn, with veterans like DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch back in the lineup, improved play from second-year players like Osa Odighizuwa and Jabril Cox, as well as five new rookies as reinforcements.

It was the Cowboys defense that kept this team in games when the offense struggled, and with much more lost on that side of the ball this offseason, they may have to do much more of the same in 2022.

While it will be hard for any rookie to live up to the first year that Parsons had, here is a look at how Sam Williams, DaRon Bland, Damone Clark, John Ridgeway, and Devin Harper could have helped the Cowboys defense be even more dominant in 2021.

DE Sam Williams

The Cowboys starting off their draft with help for the offensive line was no surprise, while defensive end remained a need going into day two. Sam Williams became the second-round pick, another hand-picked prospect from Quinn.

Williams still faces the challenge of earning snaps over Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, or other contenders. On last year’s team, the presence of Randy Gregory would also push Williams down the depth chart into the development role that many 2021 picks already played.

The hope for Williams is that he not only flashes enough as a pass rusher to earn a situational role, but can hold up as a run defender to see extended playing time. Even with a deeper group of defensive ends last year, the Cowboys run defense was an Achille’s heel, and one they haven’t done much about this offseason.

Willams’ range and ability to get off blocks quickly could have helped Dallas here, but they’ll still be looking for all of the upside the Ole Miss product offers this season.

CB DaRon Bland

While the Cowboys are forcing some young starters onto the field this season, they still have a veteran presence at cornerback to ease in their more inexperienced depth. The Cowboys took a chance in the third round last year on lengthy CB Nahshon Wright, and did the same in the fifth round this year with Fresno State’s DaRon Bland.

Opposite Trevon Diggs in the secondary, the Cowboys have Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis as proven players. Second-year player Kelvin Joseph may be first in line to see any snaps that are left between Diggs, Lewis, and Brown, but now faces added competition in Bland.

Bland is the type of press coverage, physical cornerback that has a chance to fit well in Quinn’s system if he sees the field. Bland excels at playing in the face of receivers and rerouting them on the line. With opposing offenses trying to throw away from Trevon Diggs, the Cowboys need a corner that won’t allow separation on the other side. Bland can develop into this role, but would have faced a similar challenge as he will in the team’s upcoming training camp if on the team a year ago.

LB Damone Clark

The Cowboys have one LSU linebacker expected to jump into a regular role in Jabril Cox this season, and drafted another with Damone Clark in the fifth round this year. While Cox’s “redshirt” year was unplanned, tearing his ACL as a rookie, Clark is not expected to be on the field anytime soon for Dallas.

It was the Cowboys medical staff that found the neck issue at the combine that led to Clark’s surgery, and the team ended up drafting Clark to see out his recovery. Early reports on Clark as a student of the game and great teammate, things that will be emphasized while he’s sidelined, have been positive and give Clark a chance to take hold of a position group with much uncertainty at the moment.

The Cowboys got by last year with hybrid type players like Keanu Neal and Jayron Kearse occupying snaps in the box as would-be linebackers. With Parsons, Vander Esch, and Cox, the Cowboys may be looking to get back to more traditional linebackers seeing the field. When Clark is ready to add his name to this mix, his ability to shoot gaps and make tackles in space should fit nicely in Quinn’s player-friendly system.

DT John Ridgeway

The Cowboys look for more than just a bucket-of-dirt type defensive tackle to play the 1-tech, and may have found one in this draft with Arkansas’ John Ridgeway. When Brent Urban was lost for the season, the Cowboys only had Carlos Watkins and Quinton Bohanna on the depth chart here.

Urban is now with the Ravens, but Watkins and Bohanna are still with the team along with Ridgeway. The Cowboys saw a lot of promise in rookie DT Osa Odighizuwa last year, which makes finding another tackle to keep blocks off of Odighizuwa a priority.

Ridgeway can occupy this role and more. A strong player on the interior that plays square and flows down the line well. Even when Ridgeway isn’t getting off blocks, he’s rarely washed out of a play and can knock back linemen with good upper body power.

A year of development for Ridgeway under Quinn last year could have made him an even more prominent player this season, but as it stands the rookie has a chance to start turning around the team’s fortune with fifth-round picks not sticking on the roster. Last year, Ridgeway could have helped the team with its issues in stopping the run.

LB Devin Harper

Just as the Cowboys outlook on Damone Clark shows the direction they may go at linebacker, they ended their draft with another athletic linebacker pick in Devin Harper. The Cowboys didn’t need to call many blitzes last season thanks to their front, and Parsons, getting home. That could change this year with more uncertainty on the defensive line, and gives Harper a chance to do what he does best.

Harper is an aggressive, downhill linebacker that isn’t afraid to throw his body around. It may be hard to find snaps for Harper in the nickel and dime packages the Cowboys play most of the time, but sixth-round picks are supposed to be depth options, and that’s exactly what Harper is at the moment.

With the way the Cowboys are valuing young players they can get on team-friendly deals right now, having Harper on the roster early in the offseason may have impacted their decision to retain Leighton Vander Esch, but the 2018 first-rounder earned his second contract with his strong play down the stretch.

When running this exercise for the Cowboys offense, it became clear their 2021 depth chart already had what they needed to advance further in the playoffs. The same could be said about last year’s defense, but with much more volatility from year to year, any and all reinforcements are welcome.

It may be progression from year two defenders the Cowboys are counting on more than this rookie class, but these five 2022 draft picks have the upside that could be counted on later in the attrition of a 17 game season.

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