Cowboys defense to rise or sink in 2021?
By: Adam Hulse (@AdamHulseSports)
After a very disappointing year defensively in the 2020 season, the Dallas Cowboys have made some big changes for the 2021 NFL season in hopes of improving on that side of the ball. Most importantly, they fired their defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and replaced him with Dan Quinn, who was the mastermind behind the famous Legion of Boom defense for the Seattle Seahawks for several years. This was a crucial move for the Cowboys and one that could really get things moving in the right direction.
Nolan, who was appointed defensive coordinator by head coach Mike McCarthy, only lasted one year in the position, and for good reason. The Cowboys finished the 2020 season ranked 23rd in yards allowed with 386.4 per game and 28th in points allowed with 29.6 per game. They also ranked 31st in run defense with a massive 158.8 rushing yards allowed per game. This is a significant drop off from the Cowboys 2019 season where they finished 9th in yards allowed with 327 per game, 11th in points allowed with 20.1 per game, and 11th in rush defense with 103.5 rushing yards allowed per game.
The extreme regression between 2019 and 2020 without losing much in terms of player personnel was the reason why Nolan was fired after just one season. The hiring of Quinn, in theory, is a huge upgrade from Nolan. He has had great success as a defensive coordinator and even found some success as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons when he took them all the way to a Super Bowl at the peak of his time there. He is a widely respected and highly thought of coach who will bring fresh energy and brand new scheme to the Cowboys defense that already has plenty of talent.
The defensive roster is going to look mostly the same this coming season as it did last year, lead by two stars in DeMarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith, but there have been a few key changes. The two biggest subtractions are due to the retirement of linebacker Sean Lee and the loss of pass rusher Aldon Smith. Randy Gregory, who had 3.5 sacks last season, will be the main player looking to replace the production of Smith, who ranked second on the team with 5 sacks last season. In addition, the Cowboys will look to get contributions from youngster Bradlee Anae and the newly signed Tarell Basham.
Another player that will help in the pass-rushing department, among many other things, is rookie first-round pick Micah Parsons. He is an extremely versatile player who will contribute in all aspects defensively, including replacing long time staple Lee in the linebacker group. Parsons is going to be an exciting player to watch this year and it will be interesting to see how creative Quinn gets with his unique talent. Theoretically, the Cowboys have an impressive group of linebackers when Parsons is added to Jaylon Smith and a hopefully healthy Leighton Vander Esch.
The Cowboys also added two hybrid safeties in free agency, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee. Both of these players were a part of the Atlanta Falcons team that Quinn was the head coach of, so they are very familiar with his system. They should play a big part in bringing the rest of the defense up to speed and will be key rotational pieces as well. In his four-year career, Kazee has 10 interceptions and 199 tackles across 52 games played while Keanu Neal has been a tackling machine in his career with 338 tackles in just 49 games played spread across five seasons in the NFL.
In the NFL Draft this offseason, the Cowboys made it very clear that they were trying to add as much help as possible on the defense. They used their first six selections all on defensive players and used eight of their eleven total picks on defenders. Probably most importantly besides the potential game-changer and current favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year in Micah Parsons, is the fact that they drafted three cornerbacks, which is their weakest position group. Most notable of the three was their second-round pick of Kelvin Joseph out of Kentucky at 44th overall. He is a big and physical style of cornerback, which is exactly what Quinn prefers from his coverage players.
It is reasonable to expect a huge improvement on defense from the Cowboys in the 2021 NFL season compared to the terrible one they had in 2020. Replacing Nolan with Quinn should yield much better results alone but the key additions, especially Parsons, without losing too much significance make their defensive outlook favorable for the upcoming year. In 2019 they were a top ten defense in the league and there is no reason to believe that they can’t be that or better this coming season. With a healthy Dak Prescott in 2019, the Cowboys were the top-ranked offense in the entire NFL at 431.5 yards per game and they should be right around there again this year now that he is back. If their defense can take the significant jump forward that they are expected to this season, the Cowboys are absolutely a contender to win the Super Bowl.