Mike McCarthy is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but his first since taking over the offensive play-calling. Since coming to Dallas, McCarthy has led the Cowboys to consecutive 12-win seasons, but they’ve failed to reach the NFC Championship Game both years.
After getting a little more aggressive this offseason in an attempt to get over the hump, the Cowboys are hoping for a big 2023 season. In anticipation of that, let’s take an in-depth look at every position on the roster. Today, it’s the engine that makes Dan Quinn’s defense run: the front seven.
Versatility at an all time high
For seven seasons under Rod Marinelli (and Monte Kiffin), the Cowboys defense operated under a very strict scheme with squarely defined roles for each position. Since Quinn has taken over, though, versatility has become the ideal to strive towards. Entering 2023, Quinn’s defense is as versatile as ever, which is why we have to group things more broadly by the front seven rather than defensive line and linebackers.
Micah Parsons is a big reason why, too. He’s a linebacker who primarily rushes the passer but can line up anywhere on the field, and literally has. It’s not just Parsons, though. Chauncey Golston entered the league as an EDGE and is now playing more inside; rookie Viliami Fehoko is expected to hold a similarly flexible role to Golston; DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong have seen a rapid increase of different alignments over the years; and even Isaac Alarcón has switched to the defensive line after playing offensive line the last three years.
Micah Parsons’ more specified role
Speaking of Parsons, there are questions about his role this year and how Quinn plans to deploy him. As a rookie, Parsons lined up as a traditional off-ball linebacker on roughly 55% of his snaps and dropped down to the line of scrimmage on 40% of his snaps. That changed drastically last year, with Parsons on the line of scrimmage nearly 81% of the time.
Then Parsons made a comment in the offseason about Quinn wanting to move him to the defensive line full-time, thus prompting a change in workout routines for the star pass rusher. You won’t find many people complaining about Parsons getting even more pass rush reps, but it’s certainly going to be interesting to see just how Quinn decides to use him.
Mazi Smith and the run stoppers
The Cowboys’ lone weakness on defense in Quinn’s two seasons in Dallas has been their ability to consistently stop the run. That played at least some part in the decision to draft Mazi Smith - an elite run stopper in college - in the first round. The Cowboys insist Smith also has lots of upside as a pass rusher, but his run defense will be the first thing people notice about him.
But Smith alone is not enough to fix the Cowboys’ run defense. Johnathan Hankins gave Dallas a boost when he joined the team last year, but at 31 years old it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep it up. The duo of Osa Odighizuwa and Neville Gallimore have left a lot to be desired when it comes to stopping the run, while Quinton Bohanna may be in serious danger of getting cut.
Shoring up the run defense is the biggest area for improvement for the Dallas defense. While there will naturally be some challenge to maintaining the high level of play everywhere else, a boost in run defense would be a boon for Quinn’s unit.
So who starts at linebacker? Quinn uses nickel and dime packages so much that he really only needs two starters here. Last year it was Leighton Vander Esch and Anthony Barr, so conventional logic says Vander Esch is one of those starters. But after him?
Obviously Parsons would be the other guy whenever he’s playing linebacker. Damone Clark looked really promising last year, but is he ready for a full season of action? Jabril Cox has yet to earn the team’s trust in putting him on the field, but he could emerge with a strong training camp. Rookie DeMarvion Overshown figures to be in the mix, too.
Going back to the theme of versatility, though, it’s a bit of a moot point. Quinn has shown an affinity for interchangeably using both Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson like an extra linebacker in his constantly growing three-safety packages. The Cowboys will need to sort out their depth chart at linebacker, but Kearse and Wilson are likely going to see way more run than whoever ends up as LB2 here.
Too many mouths to feed at EDGE?
The Cowboys are absolutely loaded with edge rushers. Parsons and Lawrence are the headliners, but they’ve gotten plenty of production out of Armstrong too. Then there’s Dante Fowler, whose six sacks last year earned him another contract in Dallas. Sam Williams flashed a lot but barely had any snaps leftover for him. Add in rookies like Fehoko, Isaiah Land, and Tyrus Wheat, as well as veteran Ben Banogu, and you’ve got a stacked room.
Obviously, some of these guys will not be on the opening day roster, but it’s fair to wonder how much is too much. Quinn will look to feature Parsons and Lawrence as much as possible, but it’s important to also carve out roles for Armstrong, Fowler, and Williams, who is looking to have a breakout sophomore season. Balancing all of these talented edge rushers, and getting it right, could prove the key to maintaining the dominance this defense has enjoyed under Quinn.