It wasn’t that long ago when the defense of the Dallas Cowboys was a huge liability for this team. From 2010 to 2015, the Cowboys' defense never finished inside the top 15 for the fewest points allowed. Things got better in 2016 but took a turn for the worse when Mike Nolan’s defense allowed a franchise-worst 473 points in 2020. Needless to say, Nolan’s services were no longer required.
The addition of Dan Quinn has this defense singing a whole other tune as the Cowboys have finished in the top seven in points allowed in each of the past two seasons. And with Quinn back in Dallas for another season, there are reasons to believe this group will once again be a strong unit. But, before we move forward, how do we feel about what we saw this past season? What areas of the defense look sharp and what areas need a little touch-up? Let’s run through each position group and identify possible weaknesses and where additional help is required.
On last week’s episode of The Star Seminar, Rabblerousr and I broke down the defense and determined how much work is needed this offseason for them to be a strong unit.
The Cowboys’ defensive end started out as an area of concern after the front office dilly-dallied and failed to re-sign Randy Gregory. Surprisingly, this group packed quite a punch this season. A cap-friendlier DeMarcus Lawrence graded out with the best run-stopping win rate. His partner over on the other end, Micah Parsons, had the highest pass-rushing win rate. And the depth behind them consisted of returning veteran Dorance Armstrong, free agent signing Dante Fowler, and rookie Sam Williams. The Cowboys finished the season third in sacks (54) and no team had a higher pass-rush win rate.
As great as they were overall, they struggled down the stretch. After recording at least four sacks in seven of their first ten games last year, they never got more than three sacks in any of their final seven games. They even had a couple of games with no sacks. We could see that Parsons started to wear down as the season progressed.
What is next for this group? Besides Fowler who was on a one-year rental, the team will be able to keep the band together. Look for them to do their annual low-cost veteran “once thought to be great” signing to package with an assortment of already good pass rushers. Having a good rotation will do wonders to allow Parsons to stay fresh and that may come in the form of giving Williams more reps in year two.
It was a weird year for the Cowboys’ defensive tackles as we saw a couple of promising guys fade. Trysten Hill was released and Neville Gallimore was a healthy scratch at times this season. Instead, the team relied on second-year player Osa Odighizuwa to get most of the 3-tech reps with Quinton Bohanna and Carlos Watkins handling the duties at the nose position. In late October, the team signed Johnathan Hankins to add some bulk in the middle.
Where there were some disappointments from this group, particularly Gallimore, this unit actually held up pretty well. The Hankins addition was very helpful as his value in the running game was noticed. The biggest setback from this unit was the premature release of rookie John Ridgeway who was immediately picked up by Washington where he had a solid rookie season.
With no Ridgeway and the veterans Hankins and Watkins entering free agency, this leaves a hole at the nose spot. Dallas has never been one to throw any meaningful resources at the position, but finding a quality 330+ run-stopping bruiser would help this unit.
The team re-upped on Leighton Vander Esch last season and boy did he deliver as he had the highest tackles/game average on the team. They also got the added bonus of rookie Damone Clark stepping on the field earlier than expected and delivering 47 tackles across 10 games of action. Free agent Anthony Barr was a solid filler starting 10 games for Dallas, but his play was rather blah. Luke Gifford and Jabril Cox hardly saw reps on defense as they were both relegated to special teams.
It would be nice to get Vander Esch back; however, his price will be a little steeper than the peanuts he played for last season. Clark’s skillset has fans excited for what year two could bring, but the Cowboys are going to need to go out and get some more help, especially since the once-promising Cox has not lived up to expectations.
The defense was fortunate in 2021 when all three of their starting cornerbacks Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis all stayed healthy. That was not the case this past season as Brown and Lewis both had season-ending injuries. The team got a surprise with rookie DaRon Bland who recorded a team-leading five interceptions but struggled to find others who could handle the other outside corner spot opposite Diggs. Second-year players Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright each got chances, but that didn’t last long. The Cowboys eventually called upon veteran signings Treyvon Mullen and Xavier Rhodes, but that wasn’t any better.
Diggs and Bland will return to make up two-thirds of the CB group, and Lewis is still under contract for another year. Unless Joseph or Wright can take a step forward the team will still need to find another piece on the outside. This could be a position the Cowboys look to address early in the upcoming draft.
The front office worked its magic when it threw darts at Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Damontae Kazee as these three newcomers logged the most snaps at the safety position in 2021. The Cowboys re-upped on both Kearse and Hooker by signing them both to two-year deals and they each kept playing well this past season. Donovan Wilson had the best year of his young career making splash play after splash play, and leading the team in tackles. And second-year hybrid defensive back Israel Mukuamu saw a huge uptick in playing time as he logged defensive snaps in 15 games this past season.
There’s a chance Wilson finds a bigger bag of money from some other team in free agency, but the team is still in okay shape. Youngsters Markquese Bell and Tyler Coyle are options, but they’ll need to show improvement to get on the field. The team could again look for a low-cost veteran box safety in free agency to add depth. Regardless, safety remains a rather solid group for the upcoming season because of the Kearse/Hooker combo; however, both will become unrestricted free agents in 2024.