It’s no secret the Dallas defense is currently in serious overhaul mode to improve upon the lackluster performance turned in last season. With the potency of NFC East offenses abruptly on the rise, it has become an absolute necessity to keep pace. In all fairness to the Cowboys, Rob Ryan’s defense was significantly hamstrung heading into the 2011 regular season. The NFL lockout and its enormously reduced off-season particularly hindered Dallas’ installation of a completely new defensive system led by freshly acquired Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan.
One had to expect complications and shortcomings from on-field production. However, even with the severe limitations to off-season workouts and installation time, the Cowboys showed strong improvement upon the 2010 season in almost every important defensive category. Furthermore, Ryan fostered these improved results with roughly the same core defensive players as 2010, barring a few new key pieces such as Abe Elam, Kenyon Coleman, and Sean Lee. Below is a comparison of the 2011 and 2010 defensive units.
During the early portion of 2012 free agency, Dallas quickly gained ground by upgrading key positions through the additions of Brandon Carr, Dan Connor, and Brodney Pool. Carr is an instant and crucial upgrade over Terence Newman at starting cornerback. Dan Connor provides excellent run support and insurance at inside linebacker competing with inexperienced young hopeful Bruce Carter. And Brodney Pool at the very least lends needed depth to the safety position, and has great familiarity with the defensive system and main coaches involved at his position. Needless to say, hats off to Jerry Jones and the staff for tackling these key weaknesses right out of the gates.
DEFENSIVE DRAFT NEEDS
Most Cowboys fans are well aware that to truly compete with the firepower all across the resurgent NFC East, Dallas has more work to do by upgrading the defense further in the 2012 NFL Draft. Dallas could use more help at cornerback with questions remaining on Mike Jenkins consistent production and ability to stay on the field, and also Orlando Scandrick’s coverage lapses. Also, the 4th and 5th corner spots are now vacant through the blessing in disguise losses of Alan Ball and Frank Walker.
The starting strong safety position could certainly use the addition of an aggressive, talented starter. A defense can never overvalue this spot as he is a key cog in defending both the run and pass attack. The strong safety is not just a cover guy, but also is an enforcer type that can take over ballgames. Troy Polamalu, Darren Woodson, John Lynch, Ronnie Lott are just some examples of All-Pro players of the position who instilled fear in opposing offenses on a weekly basis. The strong safety’s ability to set the physical tone of the defense is paramount. The Cowboys have certainly felt the ongoing void created from the empty shoes left unfilled ever since legendary Cowboy and 5-time Pro Bowler Darren Woodson retired in 2004. To completely turn around a leaky defense, it’s imperative to add a heavy impact strong safety who lays the wood and is the defensive field general. Cowboys fans who remember the luxury of Darren Woodson wearing the star know exactly what this means.
Also in the draft, Dallas could certainly enjoy an upgrade to pass rush. Rushing a quarterback and applying heavy pressure can never be overlooked in helping production all across the defense. The Giants send Dallas a not so friendly, up close reminder of this lesson twice a year. In 2011 the Dallas defense did produce a very respectable 42 sacks. And the Rob Ryan defense is built upon heavy pressure. Now that Carr is on campus to lend strong support in man coverage, and the defense has a full off-season to install packages, Ryan should be able to ratchet up the pressure even greater. Acquiring a pass rushing DE/OLB or two in the draft would greatly aid this end result. Even acquiring a large, hole plugging defensive tackle would increase pressure by moving Jay Ratliff over to end and release his own brand of vicious havoc on opposing tackles and quarterbacks.
With all these areas left for defensive improvement, Dallas is very fortunate to find itself positioned above the middle in a draft dripping with defensive talent. Even beyond Round 2 there are several potential immediate contributors to be plucked. Below are three players that will be available beyond the second round, and all three are capable of making a significant rookie impact. Any player who falls outside of the first two rounds certainly has predicted drawbacks assigned by NFL scouts, yet year after year several later round selections buck these uncertain evaluations and provide immediate dividends.