When listing the Dallas Cowboys‘ biggest needs heading into 2021, the word defense quickly comes to mind. After all, at times last season, this latest version of America’s Team was putting up the worst defensive performance in franchise history.
The Cowboys ended last season 23rd in total defense, allowing an average of 386.4 yards to opposing offenses per game. They ranked 28th in scoring defense (29.6), 11th against the pass (227.6), and 31st against the run (158.8).
While the Cowboys’ needs are clearly more urgent on the defensive side of the ball, they could be equally split between the front seven and the secondary. While Dallas ended the year nearly ranked in the top ten in the NFL against the pass, they are also scheduled to lose three starters to free agency in safety Xavier Woods plus cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.
Along the front seven, the Cowboys have a clear need at defensive tackle. And their front office knows this as they attempted to fill that need last season in free agency signing former Pro Bowlers Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. McCoy would suffer a season-ending quad injury and be cut before the start of the season while Poe was released seven games in for poor play.
At linebacker, what once was considered one of the league’s top linebacking duos has turned into major question marks entering 2021. Jaylon Smith’s inconsistent play has many questioning his future in Dallas. While injuries have plagued former first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch, who’s missed a total of 13 games over the past two seasons.
Improving the run defense should be the top priority in Dallas based on the numbers. And that’s despite having a couple of young and talented defensive tackles in Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore on the depth chart. Still, this is the same unit that gave up 200+ rushing yards in four games last season, including a whopping 307 yards on the ground given up to the Cleveland Browns at AT&T Stadium in Week Four.
Here’s what Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote about the Cowboys’ run defense in 2020 after listing interior defensive tackle as an offseason need for Dallas.
"“The Cowboys allowed 2.3 yards per carry before first contact on average, which was the most in the league by a clear half-yard … The Dallas defensive front was just blown off the ball with frightening regularity, and they need an impact player up the middle to prevent that from happening again in 2021.”"
Monson also mentioned that the Tampa Buccaneers allowed just one yard on average before a defender made first contact in embarrassing comparison to Dallas. Subsequently, the Bucs also spent a first-round pick on a run-stuffing defensive tackle in Vita Vea back in 2018.
Although Vea was limited to just five games in the regular season due to a fractured ankle. Another former first-rounder, Ndamukong Suh, is also part of the Buc’s stout run defense that allowed just 80.6 rushing yards on average per game this past season.
Undoubtedly, the Dallas Cowboys hope the hiring of Dan Quinn as their new defensive coordinator will help turn the tide of this entire defensive unit. But Dallas must also give Quinn the players to influence this change. And with the NFL salary cap projected to drop significantly this offseason, the Cowboys’ resources to address their needs outside of the draft could be very limited.
So identifying their biggest need and focusing their limited funds in that area would be wise. In this case, finding themselves a legitimate anchor for the interior of their defensive line would seem appropriate. But can the Cowboys get it right this time around after getting it so wrong last season?