The Dallas Cowboys will only go as far as the defense takes them

Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Jaylon Smith, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The Dallas Cowboys have had a good offseason. But how will winning the offseason translate onto the field for the 2020 regular season?

The Dallas Cowboys are primed for big things in the 2020 season. The hype is building. That’s exactly what Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones loves – the Cowboys dominating the news cycle in the offseason and winning games on the field in the regular season.

CBS Sports is expecting Dallas to have the fifth most 2020 regular season wins. Cynthia Frelund of posted a way too early win projection and has the Cowboys winning the NFC East. Former All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas also picks Dallas to win the division.

Much of the hype revolves around the offseason moves Dallas made. Gone is former head coach Jason Garrett and in his place is Super Bowl winning head coach Mike McCarthy. That is an upgrade.

The Cowboys 2020 NFL draft class has received rave reviews. From first pick, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, through the last pick, quarterback Ben DiNucci, Dallas seemed to find value, taking the best player available and filling positions of need with each pick.

The Cowboys lost several unrestricted free agents but that too was part of the plan to recoup four compensatory draft picks in the 2021 NFL draft. To fill the holes, Dallas signed a few free agents, defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and drafted replacements like corner Trevon Diggs and defensive lineman Bradlee Anae.

The number one rated by yards offense from 2019 returns nine of eleven starters assuming quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys resolve his contract situation. Slot receiver Randall Cobb departed in free agency and was upgraded by first round draft pick CeeDee Lamb. Center Travis Frederick unexpectedly retired and will be replaced by the winner of a competition between Joe Looney, Connor McGovern and draft pick Tyler Biadasz.

Special teams was abysmal in Dallas during the 2019 season. A place kicking competition between Kai Forbath who filled in admirably for four games last season and Greg Zuerlein should improve that position. A bounce back year for punter Chris Jones would go along way to help new coordinator John Fassel upgrade the special teams performance.

But the Cowboys 2020 fortunes will likely be decided by their defense. The unit finished ninth in yards allowed for the 2019 season but that stat is deceiving. The bend but don’t break philosophy broke too many times when a stop was needed and the unit failed to give the offense short fields with only 17 turnovers tying for sixth worst in the league.

The defense has too many question marks right now for the Cowboys to be considered as a Super Bowl caliber team. If the questions can be answered, the Cowboys could be primed for great things.

Along the defensive line, Dallas has only one player with star potential and that player, DeMarcus Lawrence, had an unspectacular 2019 season from a sack perspective. New signings McCoy and Poe helped the Panthers to the 29th ranked rush defense in 2019.

Recently reinstated defensive end Aldon Smith has not played meaningful football in over four years. Can 2019 draft picks Trysten Hill, Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson make big jumps from their rookie seasons? What can third round draft pick Neville Gallimore bring to the table in his rookie season?

The linebackers remain the same from 2019 with Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Justin March and Luke Gifford all returning. But this group has several questions to answer as well.

Will the 2018 version of LVE, when he had an impressive rookie year, be back or will the 2019 version that was limited by injury and sophomore slump return? The same question can be asked about Jaylon Smith who had a spectacular 2018 season and only a good but not great 2019 season.

The defensive backfield has several nice pieces but none currently would be considered Pro Bowl caliber. Corners Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown have been limited by either inconsistency or opportunity.

Newcomers Daryl Worley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are on their third and fourth teams in their short NFL careers. Safety Xavier Woods has flashed potential but hasn’t put it all together yet.

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All three levels of the Cowboys defense has the potential to deliver. It will be up to new coordinator Mike Nolan to get the most from the group. The Cowboys 2020 hopes depend on his success.