The Dallas Cowboys are a little more than a week away from the 2021 season and the hype around this team is as usual. Dak’s return and new contract were the biggest headlines for the team in March, but aside from that, the team made it’s focus obvious: defense.
The first move was a huge one in signing former Atlanta Falcons head coach, Dan Quinn, to defensive coordinator. This signaled the beginning of what would be a very defensive few months, setting the tone for 2021.
The Dallas Cowboys used 8 of their 11 draft picks on defensive players, all of whom made the roster. They also brought in many defensive free agents, starting with Damontae Kazee and Keanu, who both played in Quinn’s system.
All in an effort to improve on defense, although it’s hard to be worse than the team was last season.
The Dallas Cowboys finished 31st against the run, 24th in yards per reception allowed, 28th in 3rd downs allowed and 29th in passing touchdowns allowed, according to NFL.com.
This year, they’ve addressed all three levels on defense to play the run and the pass: defensive line, linebackers and secondary.
Signing Carlos Basham, Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, as well as drafting Quinton Bohanna, Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston has given the Dallas Cowboys plenty of depth up front. Not only has their depth improved, but players like Brent Urban for example, were brought in for specific purposes like run defense.
Urban ranked as third highest run defender on the defensive line according to PFF. In fact, all three rookie defensive linemen draft picks scored over 75 in run defense!
For perspective, DeMarcus Lawrence was the only player on the Dallas Cowboys to grade higher than 75 in run defense.
Expect plenty of shuffling along the front 3 to 4 players on the line of scrimmage.
Osa Odighizuwa (@Osagoeshard) knocks his block back while Bradlee Anae (@BradleeAnae) sets the edge. One DL got the stat, but both worked together to make the play! #stoptherun #cowboys pic.twitter.com/hHQljRhqW0
— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) August 26, 2021
With Randy Gregory getting a full offseason for the first time in years, he’s got high expectations. Being paired with DeMarcus Lawrence has given the team a formidable pair of edge rushers to get to the quarterback. The emergence of rookie Odighizuwa has given the pass rush plenty to be excited about, making the next levels of the defense happy.
The next level being the linebackers which might be the deepest in the league. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are both looking to have bounce back seasons after spotty 2020 campaigns. Their clocks might be ticking on their time with the Cowboys however.
The additions of Keanu Neal and the rookies won’t make it any easier. Keanu Neal has played his whole career under Dan Quinn and has had a seamless transition from safety to linebacker. So much so that he looks like the Dallas Cowboys second best linebacker so far.
Keanu Neal fills with such aggression and power. This isn't a surprise either he was elite at forcing fumbles before the injuries. Looks the healthiest he's been since. pic.twitter.com/OPTIT7BVlx
— Skywalker Steele (@SkywalkerSteele) August 15, 2021
Micah Parsons looks like the team’s best defensive player so far. He’s brought a new energy and has been active in run and passing game.
The irony is that while Parsons was though to be a liability in the passing game during the draft process, hasn’t been so far. The same can be said for Jabril Cox who was strong in the passing game and thought to be a liability in the run game.
Not only has Cox shown to be reliable in run defense, but he lead the team in tackles this preseason and could be in line for more snaps as the season progresses. A number of rookies will.
Speaking of rookies, Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright will be essential this season. They both had solid preseason outings overall, but not enough to take a starting job. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis will be the starters with Trevon Diggs, but could change.
Brown is a veteran but the emergence of these young corners has given the team some of it’s best depth in years. He had a good camp and is still starting due to issues with the younger players.
Kelvin Joseph is dealing with a minor groin injury and Nahshon Wright had his worst outing in the preseason finally against Jacksonville. Both have upside in this defense in skills and scheme but are going to wait their turns.
Lewis has a new contract and will be the starter in the slot. This could be contested with the emergence of Maurice Canady, giving the Dallas Cowboys great depth at inside corner.
The depth at safety is good, but full of ifs.
Depending on the health of Malik Hooker and Kazee, free safety shouldn’t be an issue. Donovan Wilson has a stranglehold on the strong safety position after his play last season. Jayron Kearse and Israel Mukuamu are special teams players for now, but add quality depth at a position that needs it.
Wilson is arguably the best player of the group and could take a Pro Bowl-type step in 2021. His play making ability and tackling skills have made him a name on the rise.
Hooker and Kazee are obvious upgrades to the free safety position, but their health history is a big reason the team kept 5 safeties. Kearse and Mukuamu both made plays in the back end, with Mukuamu making a name for himself.
The Cowboys have some great depth on all three levels. It should get even better with the eventual returns of Neville Gallimore and Chauncey Golston. Despite looking near pathetic a year ago, the team’s mission to improve the defense looks like it’s working.
We’ve seen improved play in the preseason from a number of players, and an improved energy. New rookie players and veterans are making names for themselves early and should continue as the season goes.
We’ve known the offense was going to be great, now the defense must show up. In fact, with the way they played last year, the defense just needs to be average. There’s no reason they shouldn’t exceed expectations.