Dallas Cowboys: Predicting the 2021 defensive line

Dan Quinn, DC, Dallas Cowboys Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Dan Quinn, DC, Dallas Cowboys Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /
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When Dan Quinn signed to become the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, there was a general sense of relief that the team was returning to the simpler design that proved successful in 2018. The return of the Seattle Cover 3 defense after a year of an overly multiple defense felt like the inevitable move for a historically bad 2020 Dallas Cowboys defense. How does this affect a historically bad defensive line?

For several months Cowboys fans, analysts, and beat writers didn’t hear a peep from Quinn after his hiring. After five years of below-average defensive play in Atlanta, no one had any idea what was going to change in 2021. Was Dallas going to be the self-inflicted victim of coaching retreads or were things on the upswing again with young athletic players in the fold?

Then May 1st came, the final day of the 2021 NFL Draft, Dan Quinn had a 30-minute long press conference talking about his outlook for the team. As the press conference progressed, many of the defensive selections the Cowboys made started to make more sense, partially, because he stressed the team would run a 3-4 base defense with four-down linemen in Nickel sub-packages.

Naturally, this opened some eyes. The Cowboys tried to be multiple with their fronts last year and the defensive line play was about as bad as it could be. Did the organization really decide they want another go at this?

Last week I wrote about the relevancy of the Cover 3 defense. In the final summary, I talked at decent length about the new Cowboys front seven. The point I tried making was that the only real difference between a 4-3 base and a 3-4 base is the alignment of the interior defensive line. By starting out with four linebackers on the field, you can take one or two off the field for Nickel sub-packages depending on how aggressive the team wants to be rushing the quarterback.

How the Dallas Cowboys defensive line room could look on week one of the 2021 NFL season.

None of this really affects coverage shells and how aggressive Quinn wants to be on defense; this can give Dallas more people at the line of scrimmage to defend the run while providing different ways to generate pressure.

The team has now gone through free agency and the draft. With training camp on the horizon, it is time to start speculating who makes the team and at what positions. The defensive end room is fairly clear cut but there are a lot of moving parts in the interior defensive line room because some, who were previously viewed as 3-technique tackles only, could look to play more outside as far as 6-technique.