Why Dallas’ defense could doom the ‘Boys

Courtesy of Jeff Hanisch, USA Today Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are in trouble. A 13-win juggernaut in 2016, the Cowboys were held together in part by a defense that showed few cracks — finishing 17th in efficiency — despite the entire football world expecting a collapse.

Well, just over a week into free agency, the glass has shattered. And you better watch your step because it’s all over the floor.

In that short period of time, cornerback Brandon Carr signed with the Baltimore Ravens. Fellow cornerback Morris Claiborne signed with the New York Jets. Safeties Barry Church and J. J. Wilcox signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. None are particularly spectacular — though Church certainly could be soon. But losing all four — at the same time — is dire for a defense that seemed to be held together with Elmer’s Glue last season.

Carr finished last season with a 75.3 PFF grade. Replacing him with Anthony Brown, who was nearly as good in his rookie season, won’t be the end of the world. However, Brown will now have to face better players over more snaps. Opposing teams will jump to match their top receivers up with Brown — a scary thought for a Dallas team which finished eighth in efficiency against No. 1 receivers last season.

The real problem — at least in the cornerback department — will be replacing Claiborne, who finished 12th at the position in PFF grading last season. Thus far, the only thing Dallas has done for a replacement is sign former Philadelphia Eagles corner Nolan Carroll. No matter how you spin it, this is a significant downgrade. Carroll had a 51.7 PFF grade last season, ranking 92nd at the position, and is 30 years old. He’s not getting any quicker and now has to adjust to a new scheme after a bad season. This is not a recipe for success.

At safety, Dallas can probably sustain the loss of Wilcox, who was ceding snaps to Byron Jones at free safety and cutting into Church’s snaps at strong safety. Replacing Church, however, will not be easy. The rare breed of box safety that truly has an impact on run defense in today’s game, Church was arguably the best player on the Cowboys’ defense last season other than Sean Lee. Against deep passes, the Cowboys were fourth in efficiency, reflecting how much production they got from the safety position. Without Church, much of that will be gone.

In his place, as of now, is Jeff Heath. Heath saw just 220 coverage snaps last season and has started one game in three years. His run defense is a significant downgrade from Church’s, and in coverage he simply isn’t the same player. Without lucrative options in free agency, the Cowboys will likely start the season with Heath or draft someone in April — a choice between two bad options. The secondary class in this draft is strong (though most of it comes from the cornerback position), but for a team that wants to compete now, starting a rookie will give opposing quarterbacks a target each and every week.

Rod Marinelli has consistently done an impressive job as Dallas’ defensive coordinator, and it would be no shock to see them perform above expectations again. But the expectations themselves have been lowered for a defense that was lucky to be average last season.

Embedded in a division which now includes perhaps the best receiving corps in football — that of the New York Giants — the Cowboys finally have a weak spot. Maybe they’re still the favorites, but proceed with caution and don’t step on the glass.