After the porous performance the Dallas Cowboys defense fielded in 2020, the organization was determined not to let it happen again. And it appears they have done everything within their power to do just that this offseason.
The Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after a single season. They signed free-agent veterans to shore up their defensive line, at linebacker and at safety. Then Dallas used eight of their 11 selections in the 2021 NFL Draft on the defensive side of the ball including their first six picks.
As a result, the Cowboys’ defense appears to be on the upswing based simply on potential. No one will know for sure that this unit is actually improved until actual football is being played. And there are still several questions that need to be answered.
That’s likely why one football analytics website considers the backend of the Dallas defense one of the worst in the league. Here’s what Ben Linsey of Pro Football Focus wrote about the Cowboys’ secondary heading into 2021 after ranking the unit 31st out of the NFL’s 32 teams.
"“The Cowboys spent second- and third-round picks on the cornerback position in the 2021 NFL Draft — a clear area of need heading into the season … Diggs did improve as last season progressed, but his 651 receiving yards allowed ranked 21st-most among all cornerbacks despite him playing just 12 games.”"
The only team PFF considers to have a worse secondary than Dallas? The Atlanta Falcons, who just happens to be the previous employer of the Cowboys’ new defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, and the team’s new secondary coach and passing game coordinator, Joe Whitt Jr.
Based on the fact both Quinn and Whitt helped to field the league’s worst passing defense in Atlanta last season doesn’t help the ranking. The Falcons allowed an average of 293.6 yards per game in 2020. Now throw in the fact two of the biggest free-agent signings by Dallas, safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, played for Atlanta last season, and it looks even worse.
The Cowboys lost cornerback Chidobe Awuzie to free agency this offseason. The former second-round selection was a 16-game starter in 2019, but was limited to only six starts last season due to injury.
With Awuzie gone, second-year corner Trevon Diggs is assumed to be the Cowboys’ new top defensive back, with veterans Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis as likely starters beside him. What kind of impact rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright will have in their first season is unclear as the position is a difficult transition for most.
The Cowboys also have several other cornerbacks on their depth chart who could step up to play a major role this summer. Names like Deante Burton and Rashard Robinson have earned some early praise during OTAs.
With Neal shifting to linebacker, Kazee figures to share starting safety responsibilities with Donovan Wilson. But Damontae is coming off an Achilles injury, although the early reports are positive.
In the end, it’s easy to see why the Dallas Cowboys’ secondary is being underestimated going into the 2021 NFL regular season. This is a defensive group that has much to prove and several new additions were from a team that fielded the worst pass defense in the league last year. Yet, there’s still a lot of excitement surrounding this newly-formed unit heading into training camp.