Dallas Cowboys: How good can this defense be?

LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 29:Defensive end Tyrone Crawford #98 of the Dallas Cowboys, Demarcus Lawrence #90, and David Irving #95 celebrate after defeating the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field on October 29, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MD - OCTOBER 29:Defensive end Tyrone Crawford #98 of the Dallas Cowboys, Demarcus Lawrence #90, and David Irving #95 celebrate after defeating the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field on October 29, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

The Cowboys defense has been underwhelming in recent years, to say the least, but they are building towards something greater. 

While there have been some bright spots, the defensive side of the ball has obviously not been a strength for the team.  Until DeMarcus Lawrence’s breakout season last year, the Dallas Cowboys have lacked a consistent pass rush since DeMarcus Ware left in free agency after the 2013 season.  

When Sean Lee is on the field, the Cowboys’ run defense can hold its own.  In 2016, Sean Lee’s All-Pro season, the Cowboys defense was 1st in rush defense as they only allowed 83.5 yards/game (per NFL.com).  However, when Lee is not on the field, this defense falls apart.  

Quarterbacks were routinely throwing for over 300 and 400 yards against the Dallas Secondary.  Quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins looked like MVPs. The Cowboys eventually tore down their secondary and started over in 2016 after Aaron Rodgers shredded them in the playoffs.  The Dallas Cowboys spent four picks on defensive backs during the 2017 NFL Draft. That crop of rookies showed their potential with some solid rookie campaigns.

The Dallas Cowboys’ finally seem to be able to get after the opposing Quarterback

The Projected starters in 2018 for the Dallas defensive line looks to be Tyrone Crawford, David Irving, Maliek Collins, and DeMarcus Lawrence.  In 2017, the Cowboys’ defense finished with 38 sacks which was good for 15th in the league. 

Crawford has been underperforming in terms of his massive contract.  Unless he has a breakout season, he could a face a situation similar to Dez Bryant. Maliek Collins has been a solid piece of the Dallas Cowboys’ line.

 Despite being bit by the injury bug last season, he has managed to stay on the field for almost all of his short career. Consistency is key in the NFL and Collins provides just that. Irving consistently wreaks havoc in the trenches.  His size (6’7” and 290 lbs) makes him more than a match for offensive lineman.

DeMarcus “Tank” Lawrence truly was a tank last season.  He finished tied for second in the league in sacks with 14.5.  Lawrence finally broke through after being hit with injuries early in his career.  His breakout season could not have come at a more opportune time for him since he was in a contract year.  Dallas placed the Franchise Tag on him to allow for him to remain under team control while they negotiate a long-term deal.

The Dallas Cowboys’ linebackers could be one of the best units in the league this upcoming season.  

In two of the past three seasons, the Dallas Cowboys have spent high draft picks on linebackers.  Sean Lee should continue to perform at a Pro Bowl level.  Lee has over 100 combined tackles in four of his seven seasons.  Barring injury, he can meet that number again.

Jaylon Smith has almost miraculously recovered from his potentially career-ending knee injury.  Smith has gone through OTAs without a knee brace which is a great sign. His increased mobility will make him an even more impactful player.

2018 1st Round Pick Leighton Vander Esch will likely take over the strongside linebacker spot.  Vander Esch was named 2017 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-conference.  He racked up 113 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 interceptions in his tremendous junior season (per Mountain West).  Rod Marinelli can surely bring the talent out of Vander Esch and make him the dominant force he was drafted to be.

Dallas wants their own Legion of Boom.

After being fired by the Seattle Seahawks, Kris Richard has joined the Cowboy’s coaching staff as the defensive backs coach.  Richard built the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom and they have been dominant for most of the last seven seasons.  With such a young secondary now in Dallas, the Cowboys hope they can capture some of the same magic.  

Following a loss to Richard’s Seahawks in Week 16 of last season, safety Earl Thomas made headlines when he chased Jason Garrett to the Cowboys locker room and said: “If Y’all have the chance, come get me.” The idea of Thomas joining America’s Team did gain some traction over the offseason. 

The Seahawks appear to be beginning the rebuilding process after releasing Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril, and trading away Michael Bennett.  Nothing has come to fruition but the possibility is not off the table entirely. Earl Thomas can bring experience, leadership, and All-Pro caliber play to a young Dallas Cowboys defense.

Byron Jones is confirmed to be moving back to cornerback after spending a few seasons at free safety.  He will slide in next to second-year corners Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Both corners played exceptionally well with limited snaps.  When they did become starters, they were a major factor in the Dallas Cowboys finishing the final month of the season with a 3-1 record.

Projected starting safety Xavier Woods had a great rookie season considering he was a 6th round draft pick.  Richard will be able to take advantage of his versatility and athleticism to take his play to the next level.

Next: Dallas Cowboys: The Good News About Tight End

As the young defense grows, they will face some challenges along the way but as they improve, they can become a formidable group.  The Dallas Cowboys defense this year will most likely not be a “Doomsday Defense” but they can take a major step forward and no longer be a liability.