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Dallas Cowboys defensive depth leaves no margin for error in 2021

Tairiq Marshall

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Marginal defensive performance by the Dallas Cowboys was the elephant in the room for the entire organization following an unexceptional 2020 season.

That side of the ball was an utter atrocity to say the least, allowing the most points in franchise history with 473 and second-most rushing yards with 2,541. Dallas couldn’t stop a runny nose to be frank. 

Last season revealed, more lucid than ever, that a defensive revamp was not voluntary but a sine qua non for Jerry Jones and the rest of the Cowboys’ front office entering the 2021 offseason. 

Dallas Cowboys’ proactive offseason aimed to solve defensive woes

Replacing former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan with Dan Quinn after just one season was absolutely justified. The five additions through free agency and eight draft selections on the defensive side of the ball left fans with no speculation about where Dallas’ priorities lie this year. 

America’s Team allowed key contributors on defense such as Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, and Aldon Smith to test the open market and replaced them with players who they feel can bring versatility, depth, and more productivity. 

If that wasn’t enough, the Cowboys emphatically declined the fifth-year option on 2018 first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch. While executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team would like to keep Vander Esch beyond 2021, a second contract is contingent upon his performance this season. 

Related: 2022 NFL Power Rankings – Outlook for all 32 teams entering summer

All of these signs indicate that this offseason was not about appeasing or satisfying defensive players. In fact, it was about sending them a message, one that was loud and clear:

Step up or you’ll be replaced, plain and simple. 

The depth that the Cowboys have added leaves absolutely no room for a replication of last season’s mediocrity. Otherwise, the returning veterans will ultimately be replaced.

Indeed, it will bring a level of competition at each position group that will ultimately elevate the play on that side of the ball in turn. 

Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox bring juice to Dallas Cowboys’ underachieving linebacker corps

Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox bring juice to Dallas Cowboys' underachieving linebacker corps
Apr 29, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Micah Parsons is displayed on the video board after being selected as the 12th pick by the Dallas Cowboys during the 2021 NFL Draft at First Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas utilized their first pick of this year’s draft on Micah Parsons, a versatile linebacker who was arguably the most talented defensive prospect coming out of college.

A sideline-to-sideline tackling machine, the Penn State product brings big playmaking ability and pass-rushing skills that will translate into sacks and turnovers, areas that the team has struggled in for years.

Not to mention, the additions of safety-linebacker hybrid Keanu Neal and former LSU Tiger Jabril Cox via free agency and the draft means that starting spots on the linebacking core are anything but solidified. 

Dallas possesses a unit already featuring Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch, both of whom have shown flashes of brilliance early on in their career. However, Smith’s level of productivity appears to have dipped since his coming-out party in 2018, while Vander Esch struggles to stay on the field as he’s missed 13 games in the last two seasons. 

But a deep linebacker room featuring Smith, Vander Esch, Neal, Parsons, and Cox guarantees that the absolute best men will be on the field under Quinn’s new regime, which bodes well for a unit that has been a shell of itself the last two seasons.

Once-promising players like Smith and Vander Esch suddenly don’t have strong job security anymore. Their margin for error is slim, as there seems to be a growing culture of accountability with this team.

Dallas Cowboys secondary must jell quickly for big defensive improvement

An overhaul in the secondary is something Dallas craved, but how much better the Cowboys are on the back end likely depends on how much of an impact either of their two rookie cornerbacks can make.

The team spent its No. 2 pick, and one of its third-round selections on corners. First was Kelvin Joseph out of the University of Kentucky, and then Nahshon Wright, a long and rangy DB out of Oregon State.

Pairing those two with second-year corner Trevon Diggs turns up the pressure on veterans like Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis to perform at a much higher level as well. 

Similarly, the addition of Damontae Kazee and the aforementioned Neal should be a wake-up call for guys like Darian Thompson and Steven Parker who will have to earn every rep in a room already featuring promising safety Donavan Wilson.

Assessing Dallas Cowboys’ d-line, 2021 defensive outlook

Assessing Dallas Cowboys' defensive line
Oct 4, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (90) rushes Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) in the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The D-line was far from exempt from Dallas’ defensive cleansing, as the Cowboys utilized the Nos. 75 and 84 picks of the third round on defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa out of UCLA and edge-rusher Chauncey Golston out of Iowa. 

Expect veterans Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory to spearhead a line that already includes two promising interior stalwarts in Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore. But throwing Odighizuwa and Golston into the mix means that this unit can’t go anywhere but up 2021.

While it may appear that each level of the defense is just overcrowded with unnecessary guys who may or may not see the field, in-house talent is being pushed to perform as young players and newcomers are trying to establish themselves. 

Minimal reps means that the absolute best men will win starting jobs, and it’s not guaranteed that those who played last season will see the field this year. 

However you dissect it, the team is the ultimate beneficiary in the long run, and the Cowboys’ multitude of defensive additions may be the spark they need to get back in the mix for the NFC East crown.