The Dallas Cowboys’ biggest change on defense will not be one on the playing field but on the sidelines. Dan Quinn taking over as the Defensive Coordinator will surely be more important than any player addition the Cowboys made in free agency or in the NFL Draft.
However, some interesting changes should take place player-wise as well. With four defensive players taken in the first three rounds of the Draft, that’s what fans should expect from 2021.
But how will the defense actually look like when the season kicks off? The Cowboys’ defense will surely feature a lot of rotation, especially at defensive tackle and linebacker. But here’s my projection of how I believe the starting lineup will look like in 2021.
Note: Although it’s been said that Quinn’s defense could resemble a hybrid defense with a three-man front, the Cowboys’ DC has also said that the team’s nickel defense will feature a four-man front. And since nickel defenses are the true “base” formations in today’s NFL, this projection will feature four defensive linemen and two linebackers.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory
With Aldon Smith out of the picture, expect Gregory’s snap count to rise well above his 2020 mark. Having played in only 25% of the defensive snaps last year, Gregory made an impact just about every time he was on the field. In fact, he finished the season as the second player on the Cowboys with the most QB hits (12), only two behind from Smith.
It’ll be interesting to see how the depth chart looks like in the season. Bradlee Anae played less than expected as a rookie last season, and now third-round draft pick Chauncey Golston is joining the team.
Brent Urban (1-Tech), Neville Gallimore (3-Tech)
Perhaps the most difficult position to project for the Dallas Cowboys defense is the interior defensive line. The team made sure to have a lot of depth at the position after being destroyed by the running game in 2020.
However, no clear set of starters has emerged yet. Although I believe the rookies Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna will be able to make an impact this year, I would expect them to take a while.
Gallimore had a good rookie season for the Cowboys last year and stepped up when the team asked him to after multiple injuries at the position. Urban has been a decent DT against the run game earlier in his career but he’ll have to improve his pass-rushing skills to become an impact starter. Bohanna, even as a sixth-rounder, might get a shot to become a starter at some point of the season.
Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch
The linebackers will be in an intense battle of “Odd-Man Out” in training camp. Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and rookie Micah Parsons are all aiming to be one of the two starters for the Cowboys when the season kicks off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Parsons is the best athlete out of the three and the Cowboys have put a lot on his plate this offseason as the 12th overall pick absorbs everything he can. Between Vander Esch and Smith, I slightly favor Vander Esch if healthy. Even though he hasn’t been the same since his rookie season in 2018, his decline hasn’t been as steep as Jaylon Smith’s.
Vander Esch has struggled to remain healthy though, which could lead to a smoother path toward starting for Jaylon.
Trevon Diggs, Kelvin Joseph, Anthony Brown (Slot)
Early in the offseason, reports emerged on Anthony Brown being the expected starter opposite of Trevon Diggs. However, I’m leaning toward Joseph to be CB2 for the Cowboys in 2021. He has the physical talent to stick with NFL wide receivers and if it weren’t for some maturity concerns, Joseph might’ve been a first-round draft pick. Even if he’s not a starter by Week 1, I believe it won’t take long for him to beat Brown for the job.
Many expect Jourdan Lewis to be the slot cornerback for the Cowboys, and he might be the correct option. I’m slightly leaning toward Brown in that role only because of the weight Dan Quinn places on length, something Lewis lacks.
Damontae Kazee, Donovan Wilson
Kazee is one of those Dallas Cowboys’ additions that might be overlooked as we get closer to the season. Coming off an Achilles injury raises some concerns, but he’s apparently healthy and has been very productive for Dan Quinn’s defenses before. He might not be an elite safety in the league, but he could prove to be the best free safety the Cowboys have had in a while.
After a breakout season last season, Donovan Wilson should have a more established role as a full-time strong safety.
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