There's no arguing that the Cowboys' offense has been the strength of the team so far in 2021. But that doesn't mean we haven't seen some strong individual play on the defensive side, and some top performers have been instrumental to Dallas' five-game winning streak early this season.
The best thing about the Cowboys' defense in 2021 is that we're only scratching the surface of its potential. We only got one game from DeMarcus Lawrence thus far and other intriguing players out of the rotation: Dorance Armstrong, Neville Gallimore, Kelvin Joseph, and a few more.
Even shorthanded, Dan Quinn's group has adapted and done enough to help the Cowboys get to 5-1 before the bye week. Which five players have led the way?
5. LB Micah Parsons
Arguably his best moments were early in the year when being tasked with rushing the passer, and especially in Week 2 with both Lawrence and Randy Gregory missing against the Chargers. But while he's still learning on the job and making the occasional rookie mistakes, Parsons has lived up to 1st-Round billing and is currently the heavy favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Perhaps the most impressive thing we've seen from Micah has been his manner and immediate boost to the mentality on defense. He exudes energy and confidence and the Cowboys defenders are showing that in new ways this year.
Consistency will come, as will more big plays like we saw early in the season. But Parsons has already proven that he's NFL-ready and has the makings of a future star. It will be exciting to see how the bye week has helped him work on his game and build on this fine foundation.
4. DT Osa Odighizuwa
He won't make the same flashy plays that his athletic fellow rookie does but Odighizuwa has been arguably better overall. He pushed his way into a starting role, albeit helped by Gallimore's injury, and has been Dallas' most-used defensive lineman by playing on a little over 60% of the defensive snaps.
We've seen Osa make big stops against the run and be disruptive as a pass rusher. His two sacks so far in 2021 are third on the team behind Gregory and Parsons and a solid number for an interior lineman.
Deeper analytics have Odighizuwa as one of the more effective defensive linemen in football, winning his matchups at a higher rate than household names like DeForest Buckner, Leonard Williams, and Grady Jarrett.
With Gallimore and Trysten Hill both close to returning, Osa's share of the snap counts may go down as the season continues. But when it comes to crucial moments in games, the Cowboys may have a hard time keeping this rookie off the field.
3. S Jayron Kearse
I will admit that I dismissed Kearse as an impact signing from the offseason. Once Dallas added Malik Hooker before camp I figured Jayron wasn't even going to make the final roster. But instead he's been the team's best safety and a bigger difference-maker than any of the new arrivals from 2021 free agency.
Kearse leads the team with 39 tackles thus far. But these aren't just by being the last line of defense; Jayron also leads with four tackles-for-loss and has four QB hits on his blitzes.
The contributions have also come in pass defense. We've seen Kearse break up passes with coverage and with big hits on would-be receivers.
To have made guys like Hooker and Donovan Wilson afterthoughts on the defense is very telling about how well Jayron has performed thus far. At this rate, his one-year deal with the Cowboys won't be his last one.
2. DE Randy Gregory
Four sacks to lead the team would be good enough to put Randy on this list. But the impact that Gregory's had has gone well beyond the basic box score.
Coming off his best game of the season, Gregory's two early sacks and forced fumble on New England QB Mac Jones were game-changing plays that helped keep Dallas afloat. But in addition to those highlights, and as we've seen all year, Randy's been a constant disruptor and nuisance for opposing passers and their protection.
Even when he's not the one making the play, Gregory has chased quarterbacks into the arms of his teammates. He's also forced holding calls on opposing blockers and had several more that should've been called.
But even if you're one of those people who only judges edge rushers by sacks, Gregory's on a satisfying pace for double digits this year. That rate could even improve once DeMarcus Lawrence returns and hopefully draws some of the heat away from Randy.
1. CB Trevon Diggs
Was there any doubt who'd be atop the list? Diggs isn't just the best defender in Dallas right now but is a clear favorite in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion.
With seven interceptions in just six games, Trevon is threatening all-time records for the franchise and even the league. And with two already returned for touchdowns, Diggs is even outscoring some of the top receivers that he's tasked with covering.
As I wrote about following the Giants game, Trevon's style of play is drawing some very high praise and special comparisons. And now that all quarterbacks should have a healthy fear of him, Diggs' impact on the defense overall could be even greater as the season continues.
If 2021 does end up being a memorable season for the Cowboys, it will be in no small part due to Trevon Diggs. He's made the biggest plays and in some key moments, and he's brought a pizazz to this defense that we haven't seen in a long time.