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7 bold predictions for 2023 Cowboys defense

Can the Dallas defense remain dominant?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have played their first preseason game, giving us all a good first look at several new names on the defensive side of the ball that the team hopes to help maintain their recent run of dominance on defense since Dan Quinn showed up. Using that plus what we’ve seen in training camp, here are some bold predictions for the Dallas defense once the regular season gets under way.

Micah Parsons leads the league in sacks

This might not seem that bold at first blush, but that’s just because we’ve all gotten used to how dominant Micah Parsons already is. Parsons has been a force rushing the passer since entering the league, finishing ninth in pressures as a rookie despite splitting time evenly between pass rusher and off-ball linebacker. Parsons then led the league in pressures last year in a more defined pass rushing role.

But Parsons has yet to even come close to leading the league in sacks. His 13 sacks as a rookie were good for the sixth most (T.J. Watt led that year with 22.5) and Parsons’ 13.5 last year ranked seventh (Nick Bosa led with 18.5).

There’s plenty of reason to expect a surge from Parsons, though. Early in the offseason, he mentioned changing his workout routine to follow that of a full-time defensive end in an effort to build up his stamina; Parsons had been very open last year about losing some steam down the stretch now that he was going up against bigger offensive linemen more frequently.

There’s also the theory/hope that an improved Cowboys offense, one that scores more consistently in games, will lead to opposing teams having to drop back to pass more often to stay in the game, thus creating more opportunities for Parsons to attack. If both of those things happen, Parsons should be in a good spot to lead the league in sacks.

DeMarcus Lawrence hits double digit sacks

DeMarcus Lawrence has been one of the most underrated edge rushers in the NFL for quite some time now, and his low sack totals have a lot to do with that. Lawrence is frequently cited by fellow players as one of the best, and his advanced metrics reflect that. The 2021 season is the only one of the last six seasons where Lawrence recorded fewer than 50 pressures, and that was the year he missed 10 games with injury.

But Lawrence hasn’t had double-digit sacks since 2018, when he tallied 10.5 a year after breaking out with 14.5. A lot of that has to do with Lawrence being the top priority for opposing offenses over that span, with Parsons only recently coming into the picture.

Lawrence was off to a dominant start last year, picking up six sacks in the first 10 games and on pace to hit double-digit totals again. That’s when the defense as a whole hit a bit of a dry spell with sacks and overall pressures, and Lawrence himself failed to record a sack the rest of the year.

Similar to the thinking behind Parsons’ sack prediction above, Lawrence could be in for surge of his own. If he can replicate the pace he was playing at in the first half of last season, but avoid a lull later in the year, Lawrence will be well on his way to a double-digit sack season.

Mazi Smith leads interior defenders in pressures

If we were looking to take bets on each of these predictions, this one would surely have the longest odds. Mazi Smith was an elite run-stuffer in college, but contributed little as a pass rusher. Much of that was due to his use in Michigan’s scheme, though, and the Cowboys have maintained that they see loads of potential in Smith.

Combine that with the Cowboys’ lack of a real pass rushing threat along the interior of the defensive line - Osa Odighizuwa led the team with 31 pressures, which ranked 31st in the league among his position - and there is plenty of room for Smith to make his mark.

This prediction rests entirely on believing the Cowboys knew what they were talking about when they said Smith had untapped potential as a pass rusher. But if Smith flashes enough pass rush juice in the preseason, he’ll be given every opportunity to hit this mark. Unlike Odighizuwa, Smith will be seeing plenty of reps on early running downs, and could also see work in passing downs too, thereby setting him up to be one of the more frequent players on the interior. From there, all it takes is Smith unleashing his potential on opposing offensive linemen,

Leighton Vander Esch leads the team in tackles

Leighton Vander Esch hasn’t led the Cowboys in tackles since his stellar rookie year. In fact, last year was his first time since then finishing among the top three in tackles for the Cowboys. Vander Esch’s 90 tackles came in at a distant second behind Donovan Wilson’s 101 tackles.

Those trends are indicative of Vander Esch’s career arc to this point, though. He blew away expectations in his rookie year, earning a Pro Bowl nod, but injuries caused him to miss 13 games over the next two years. And when Vander Esch did play, he wasn’t the same force he had been as a rookie, clearly affected by his various ailments.

However, Vander Esch caught fire in the last half of the 2021 season, causing the team to bring him back on a one-year deal after declining his fifth-year option before the start of the season. He continued his strong play in 2022, earning a two-year extension this summer.

It should be noted that Vander Esch missed three games this past season, and was on pace to record 109 tackles. That would have given him a slight lead over Wilson, and it’s why Vander Esch should be well positioned to lead the team in 2023. With Parsons likely to see more pass rushing reps, and the rest of the linebacker rotation still rounding into form, Vander Esch is going to be relied upon heavily. If he can keep playing the way he has been, he’ll easily finish things up with the most tackles on this Dallas defense.

Trevon Diggs picks off at least five passes

Trevon Diggs is a veritable ballhawk, having snagged 17 interceptions in three years. What’s crazy is that number should be even higher, as Diggs dropped a handful of interceptions in his rookie year before vowing to get more consistent with his hands.

Diggs led the league with 11 interceptions in 2021, but recorded just three in both 2020 and 2022. Last year, it was at least partially due to Diggs seeing fewer targets in the second half of the year, as quarterbacks attacked the rotation of cornerbacks who filled Anthony Brown’s place after his season-ending injury.

With the secondary having been properly invested in this offseason, and Diggs having squared away his contract situation already, there shouldn’t be any further barriers to Diggs getting back on his interception parade. He consistently gets his hands on the ball, with at least 14 passes defensed in each year of his career, and only seems to be getting better at hauling in the pass after picking off his own quarterback several times already through camp. Hitting five interceptions shouldn’t be hard for him.

Stephon Gilmore gets zero interceptions

Stephon Gilmore was a high profile addition to this secondary, and rightfully got lots of fans excited. Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, has earned his reputation as a shutdown corner: he’s finished inside the top 25 of cornerbacks in passer rating allowed for five of the last seven seasons, often placing inside the top 10. That’s impressive consistency for a player with as long a career as Gilmore has had.

However, Gilmore isn’t exactly a ballhawk. His league-leading six interceptions in 2019 was a big part of winning the DPOY award, but that was also a statistical anomaly for him. Case in point: Gilmore has five total interceptions in the three seasons since then.

Part of that has to do with Gilmore not being targeted all that often, as he’s been the second or third most targeted defensive back on his team in six of his 11 seasons in the NFL. The years where he has been heavily targeted have frequently been the years where he’s had multiple interceptions.

In Dallas, Gilmore is unlikely to be tested all that much. Opposing quarterbacks still love throwing at Diggs - he’s one of the 10 most targeted corners in the league the last two years - in hopes of beating him deep, and DaRon Bland figures to be tested early and often in his first full year as the starting slot corner (assuming, of course, that he does hold down that role).

It should be noted that Gilmore has never recorded zero picks in a season, so this would be a first for him. But being a highly respected shutdown corner on a team as high profile as the Cowboys could lead to even less opportunities than ever before. And that could translate to a goose egg in the interception column.

Cowboys lead the league in defense by DVOA

Much like the Parsons prediction, this doesn’t seem all that bold, but it also hasn’t actually happened yet. The Cowboys defense has been dominant in the two years Dan Quinn has been running the show, but they’ve finished second in defensive DVOA both years. The Bills took the crown in 2021, while the 49ers did so last year.

Two straight years of finishing second in the league is certainly not anything to complain about, but the Cowboys are in good position to make a jump. Dallas made an aggressive move to upgrade their pass defense - which has been top three in pass defense DVOA both years - by trading for Gilmore, and they made a concerted effort to beef up a run defense that has been their lone weakness under Quinn by re-signing Johnathan Hankins and drafting Mazi Smith in the first round.

If all of those moves work out as planned, the defense should once again be playing at an elite level, buoyed by a fearsome pass rush unit. Finishing outside of the top five would be a disappointment, as the standard has been set. But this unit has the talent to take the top spot and add just one more feather in Quinn’s cap.

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