The Dallas Cowboys have found themselves a new Defensive Coordinator in Dan Quinn. After a weird year under Mike Nolan, the Cowboys’ defense will return to a less ambitious and complex scheme. But of course, Quinn won’t be working with top-tier talent like he did when he was the coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom.
Instead, he’ll have to work with a less talented roster and will have to make some interesting decisions regarding the Cowboys’ personnel. Here are four players that Quinn’s hiring could impact the most.
S Donovan Wilson
Since Dan Quinn’s defense consists primarily of single-high coverages like Cover 3 and Cover 1, the Cowboys will need a top-tier free safety. It’s unclear if they’ll search for one outside of the organization or will look for an in-house player to fill such an important role.
Donovan Wilson had a breakout year in 2020 as he secured the starting job midway through the season. Although many fans are inclined to think of Wilson as a strong safety, he actually was used primarily as a free safety. According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson lined up at FS 379 times and 220 times in the box.
Wilson has shown the ability to play both positions, though. As a pass rusher, PFF graded him as the best safety in the NFL. The 25-year-old safety also played well in coverage and showed good tackling skills throughout the season as he laid the boom week in and week out.
Considering Atlanta Falcons’ safety Keanu Neal, who worked for Dan Quinn is set to hit free agency in March, it’ll be interesting to see if the Cowboys are interested to bring him in. Neal played in the box in 484 snaps in 2020 while lining up at FS only 226 times. Of course, this free agency will feature many other quality safeties.
Wilson played well enough to be a starter in 2021, but what will be his role in Dan Quinn’s defense? That remains to be seen.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
In the last couple of years, DeMarcus Lawrence has 11.5 sacks. Compare that to 2017-2018 when he racked up 25 sacks and you might understand why some fans think he’s taken a step back. However, in reality, Lawrence remains one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Tank actually graded as the fourth-best edge defender by PFF.
Mike Nolan tried to implement many new wrinkles to the Cowboys’ defense including edge rushers like Lawrence rushing the passer out of a two-point stance. With the Dallas Cowboys set to return to a more traditional defense, we could be in for a huge year from DeMarcus Lawrence.
DE Randy Gregory
But perhaps even more interesting along the defensive line is Randy Gregory. One of the main complaints regarding Mike Nolan was how little he actually used Gregory, who seems to be the second-best pass rusher on the team. Yet he played in only 24% of the team’s defensive snaps. Compare that to Aldon Smith’s snap counts, who was in for 73% of the plays.
But Gregory could be in for a career year under Dan Quinn.
Quinn’s defense features the use of a “LEO.” This term refers to a weak-side defensive end that will line up wide at the line of scrimmage. Instead of lining up in the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, he’ll line up even wider. Think of the LEO as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end who will be used in pass rushing situations. His assignment is simple: pass rush, pass rush, pass rush.
Gregory is expected by many to fill this role. John Owning from the Dallas Morning News wrote about it in a recent film room piece discussing the Cowboys’ defense.
“I expect Randy Gregory to fill and thrive at the LEO position in Quinn’s defense, as the wide alignments should only aid his ability to rush the passer.”
Randy Gregory has shown the talent is there to exploit it. In 2021, the Cowboys might finally cash in on their 2016 second-round bet.
LB Jaylon Smith
I’m truly intrigued by Smith’s future. His struggles in 2020 can’t be ignored nor can they be underestimated because of his name and his 2018 performance. While the Cowboys may decide to keep him around, it’s only fair to admit his release is a possibility.
Designating Jaylon Smith to a Post-June 1st cut would free up over $7M, per Over The Cap.
However, I wonder how Dan Quinn impacts his job security. Quinn’s defense features one-gap fronts that could end up helping both Smith and Leighton Vander Esch down the road. Compared to Mike Nolan’s defense, the Cowboys should improve when defending the run thanks to having more defenders in the box.
Yet the Dallas Cowboys will likely evaluate Jaylon’s future and financial impact on the team’s salary cap in a season in which the cap will decrease instead of increasing as usual.
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