The Dallas Cowboys spent plenty of resources on the defensive side of the ball in free agency in 2020. Defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe were signed as potential anchors on the interior, and veteran Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was brought in to play opposite Xavier Woods.
The expectations for the Cowboys defense were pretty high, but unfortunately, all three of the aforementioned defensive free agents were off the roster by October. As a unit, the Cowboys finished 28th in points allowed, 31st against the run, and 23rd overall in 2020, while also giving up a franchise-record 473 points.
Although the Cowboy’s defense as a whole was putrid, three players showed their ability to be playmakers for the foreseeable future.
After missing all of the 2019 season with an indefinite suspension, Randy Gregory was conditionally reinstated in September and activated to the 53-man roster in October after missing the first six games. In his third game back against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9, he led the team with five quarterback pressures. However, on Thanksgiving against the Washington Football Team, Gregory recorded two sacks, marking the first time he’d ever had a multi-sack game in his career.
His best performance came in Week 16 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Not only did he record 1.5 sacks, but he also became the first Cowboys defender to force three fumbles since David Irving in 2016. He finished the season with 21 tackles, 12 quarterback hits, and 3.5 sacks in 10 games. After nearly two years away from the field that’s quite impressive, especially considering he played under 50% of the team’s defensive snaps in six of his final seven games.
The Cowboys lost Byron Jones in free agency last year which emphasized the cornerback position in the NFL Draft. Alabama’s Trevon Diggs was selected with the 51st overall pick in the second round. His transition started a little rocky as he faced elite wide receiver talent like Julio Jones, DK Metcalf, and Odell Beckham Jr. However, the Cowboys new CB1 found his groove in October. Over a five-game stretch, Diggs recorded 22 tackles, eight passes defended, and two interceptions (both came against Philadelphia in Week 8).
The talented rookie would suffer a minor setback in Week 9 against the Steelers when broke his foot. He missed four games but finished strong with four passes defended and an interception in the final three weeks. Diggs would become the first rookie Cowboys defender to led the team in passes defended (14) and interceptions (3) outright. There’s room for improvement, but Diggs proved in his inaugural season that he’s one of the bright young stars at the cornerback position.
The safety position has been one of frustration for the Cowboys for what seems like forever. Xavier Woods is a serviceable safety, but not a dynamic playmaker by any means. In 2019, however, Donovan Wilson led all defenders with three interceptions in the preseason but had his rookie season derailed by an ankle injury and only played 16 defensive snaps. 2020 was a different story though, as Wilson emerged as a viable starting NFL safety.
Wilson didn’t log a defensive snap in the first three games (65 on special teams) but played 71 plays in Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns. He recorded 10 tackles and the first sack of his career. He would start the next seven games and log 41 tackles, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and 1.5 sacks. After a groin injury put him on the sidelines for two weeks, Wilson wrapped up his second season with 18 tackles and the first two interceptions of his career in the final three games.
Gregory is 28 with only 38 games of NFL miles on his body, Diggs just completed his rookie campaign, and Wilson only has 10 starts on his resume. The youth and talent of these three players give the Cowboys defense a good foundation for 2021.