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Dallas Cowboys 2016 Needs: Assessing The Defense

Tommy Simon

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Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016 Needs: Assessing The Defense

In part one of this three-part series, we looked at the offensive positions that the Cowboys need to fill or upgrade in the upcoming offseason. Now we’ll take a look at the upcoming defensive needs.

The defense has had a good year in 2015 but they suffer from a lack of sacks and turnovers. Worse, the Cowboys have multiple contracts expiring and could have as many as 5 new starters in 2016. So there are some major upgrades that need to be addressed while also filling several critical voids. Let’s take a look at each of the unit’s upcoming needs.

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016 Needs: Assessing The Defense 1

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Cornerback

Well, the good news is that Orlando Scandrick will be back, but we do not know if/when he will be back to his pre-injury level. So will he be a starter or will he be the slot corner? For the sake of this article, let’s assume he is a starter and will move to slot in nickel situations. What else will the Boys need at corner?

With Tyler Patmon gone, I’m not sure who will be the backup slot corner, which would tend to make me think Dallas will need to address this backup need. Terrance Mitchell is playing slot now, but is that out of necessity more than preference? I really do not see them with Mitchell and Deji Olatoye both on the roster to start next year. One will go back to the practice squad; most likely Olatoye. My personal belief is that the Boys will address the backup slot corner either in the middle rounds of the draft or by signing a veteran backup.

So what about the three outside corner positions? You have to think that Mitchell could take the 5th corner position on the team due to his versatility and tough, physical play. So that leaves the two outside corner positions.

Most people believe Brandon Carr is gone. The Boys will dump his 13mil salary and use it to upgrade the corner position (or other positions). I agree. Not that he will be gone but that the Boys will not pay him 13mil. I am sure the Cowboys will ask him to take a cut this year. Carr could probably get another team to pay around 3.5-4 million (around the top 45 salaries) per year on the open market. So if the Boys came to him and guaranteed the 13mil but split it over two or three years, you would think that Carr would be foolish to turn it down.

By doing this, the Boys make Carr one of the primary three outside corners. He will be either the two or three (assuming Scandrick is the one) and that should also free up money for the Boys to look at signing a veteran shut-down corner. If there is a difference maker in the 8-10 million dollar range then the Boys should pull the trigger. If they do this, expect them to draft a corner in the mid-rounds to be the primary slot backup.

However, if they do not feel good about free agent options, another option would be to bring back Morris Claiborne. He can fill the second corner position and be the lead outside corner in the nickel. He had a good year and will probably be a fairly affordable option (4 to 4.5 million). It’ll be interesting to see if/what the Cowboys offer.

Another option would be to use one of their first two picks to get a corner who could start fairly early in his career. If they go with an early draft pick, expect them to get a seasoned vet to back up the slot and provide insurance for the rookie.

The last option is to use the 13mil in Carr’s salary to re-sign him, re-sign Claiborne, and to draft an impact rookie in the first three rounds. But that is probably not in the works. But we’re dreaming a little now, right?

Number of Positions: 5
Players: O. Scandrick, B. Carr, TBA (Mitchell or Olatoye), TBA (Draft Pick), TBA (Vet, maybe Claiborne)
Upgrade Needed: Starting outside corner (slot will be upgraded with Scandrick returning)
Optimal Scenario: Carr reduces salary 60%, Claiborne is re-signed, draft a great young corner in the 2nd or 3rd round who will contribute and be the primary backup for the slot corner.

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016 Needs: Assessing The Defense 2

Dallas Cowboys

Safety

If our plan for the corner position works out then Byron Jones can be left as the starting free safety. I like Barry Church at strong safety and J.J. Wilcox can be Church’s primary backup.

Jeff Heath is a free agent though I would be surprised if the Boys did not re-sign him. He is their backup to the backup insurance, and he is the special team’s guru.

So the only need at safety should be at backup free safety. This is a position that could go either way, draft or veteran free agent. I would think that because there are so many other free agents needed that the Cowboys would try to draft and develop someone. I could see a 4th or 5th round pick being used for a free safety.

However, if an opportunity to draft an elite free safety presented itself early in the draft, Jones could be used as a corner next year and that would eliminate the need to draft a corner. This is another scenario that could play out that gives the Cowboys more options during the draft, which is definitely a good thing.

Number of Positions: 5
Players: B. Jones, B. Church, J. Wilcox, TBA (Heath most likely), TBA
Upgrade Needed: Free Safety (keeping Jones there)
Optimal Scenario: Cowboys draft a starting corner early in the draft which allows Jones to stay at free safety. The Boys then draft a good developmental free safety prospect in the mid-to-late rounds.

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016 Needs: Assessing The Defense 3

Dallas Cowboys

Linebacker

Decisions regarding the linebackers will get interesting. Sean Lee will be there unless he retires due to concussion issues. By the way, if I’m the Cowboys, I shut him down so he is ready for 2016. That would also allow us to see what Damien Wilson has and give him some valuable playing time.

Anthony Hitchens is also going to be on the roster, hopefully as the primary backup to the Will and Mike positions. Wilson is on the roster and will be another backup Will. I actually think Wilson may turn out to be the best outside edge blitzer the Boys have.

Andrew Gachkar is also signed and will continue to be a vital player on special teams. I also like him better than Hitchens as a backup MIKE, but that is just me.

Now this is where the fun starts. Kyle Wilber and Rolando McClain are free agents. So there goes your best middle and strong side LBs. Yes, I know that Hitchens starts at strong, but he is not built for the position and so the Boys should look for a starting Sam LB that should be fairly affordable in free agency.

The Cowboys have Mark Nzeocha on the roster, but I’m not convinced the Cowboys will keep him unless they keep seven LBs. I think the last decision may come down to the Boys keeping 4 safeties and 7 LBs or 5 safeties and 6 LBs. If they do keep him, he will be primarily on special teams and the backup for the Sam LB position.

So what I envision is the Boys needing to replace a starting Mike LB and Sam LB. Though the chances of getting both with all of the other needs are pretty slim. You would think they bring in at least one vet. I do not think you will be able to get a starting Mike unless you use one of the first two picks, possibly the third. I do not think they value the Sam position enough to draft a SAM linebacker in the first three picks and I don’t think you can get a starter drafting in the fourth or later. So I think they address the LB position in free agency.

My guess is they re-sign McClain and pick up an affordable veteran who will play the SAM position and help on special teams.

Number of Positions: 6, possibly 7
Players: S. Lee, A. Hitchens, D. Wilson, A. Gachkar, possibly M. Nzeocha, TBA (Vet), TBA (probably draft)
Upgrade Needed: Starting LBs at middle and strong
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign McClain and sign a starting quality strong side LB

Cowboys Blog - Dallas Cowboys 2016 Needs: Assessing The Defense 4Defensive Line

The DE position will likely be tumultuous and have the most change. Greg Hardy and Jeremy Mincey are both free agents and my gut says that neither will be back. Well, I say it’s 50/50 that Hardy returns.

Randy Gregory has not had the year we expected and will probably not be ready to start next year, so let’s slot him as the third DE and pass rush specialist.

DeMarcus Lawrence is getting better and I project him as the starting DE. But on which side he will play depends on who they sign in free agency.

So if that scenario plays out, the Boys will need to find a starting DE and a fourth backup DE. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dallas bring in a bigger run stuffing DE and use a third or fourth round draft pick on an undersized speed rusher in the mold of Lawrence and Gregory. This would move Lawrence back to the right side DE position.

If the Boys do re-sign Hardy (or someone like him), then look for them to draft a bigger DE that can be teamed with Lawrence on the left.

The DT is another position that will have change. Jack Crawford is a free agent; as is Nick Hayden. But the Boys do get Terrell McClain back at the one.

It looks like David Irving is the real deal and will play both DE and three-technique. I think he will be the primary swing DE/DT on game day. Basically, he will fill the position of fourth DT and fourth DE.

I project Ryan Russell to play the three-technique mostly. Hopefully, he is getting stronger and working on his explosiveness. But like Irving, he will play both DE and DT.

Of course the Boys have Tyrone Crawford signed long-term as the three, but it would not surprise me if he splits his time evenly between the one-technique and the three-technique. Personally, I think he makes a better one than three. He is a nightmare for centers.

The Boys are likely to keep 9 positions, so let’s look at what positions need to be filled. Working from lowest priority to highest:

9. Swing DE/DT – Ryan Russell
8. Fourth DE – TBA (Possibly Irving, if Jack Crawford is re-signed for backup three)
7. Back Up One-Technique – Terrell McClain
6. Back Up Three-Technique – David Irving
5. Third DE – Randy Gregory
4. One-Technique – Tyrone Crawford (could fill three if one technique is signed)
3. Left DE – TBA (If Hardy is signed, then Lawrence will fill)
2. Right DE – DeMarcus Lawrence
1. Three-Technique – TBA (Could be filled by Crawford if one-technique is signed)

So to summarize, there are three positions that will need to be filled. A starting DT (could be one or three), a starting DE, and the fourth DE. But if Jack Crawford is re-signed then Irving will be moved to cover the fourth DE and that will leave you with only the two starting positions which need to be addressed.

Number of Positions: 9
Players: T. Crawford, T. McClain, D. Lawrence, R. Gregory, D. Irving, R. Russell, TBA (DE starter), TBA (4th DE), TBA, (starting one or three technique).
Upgrade Needed: Starting One/three-technique, starting DE, backup three.
Optimal Scenario: Re-sign Hardy (or an equivalent impact rusher), draft an explosive three-technique, move Tyrone Crawford to one-technique and re-sign Jack Crawford to back up the three (along with Irving).

That’s my assessment of the defensive needs the Boys should address this offseason. The Cowboys could wind up with a new starting DE and DT. In addition, they could have one or two new starting LBs. Finally, the Cowboys will likely have at least one new starting corner (not even counting Scandrick coming back) and could have two if they Boys cannot agree to a contract with Carr.

So there is a possibility that half of the Cowboys defensive starters will be new next year. That is a lot of change for a unit that performed well this year.

Tomorrow, in Part 3 of this series, I'll dive into some of the trends and analyze possible next steps in a little more detail. Stay tuned.



Tommy Simon is an entrepreneur, writer, speaker and sports enthusiast. He is currently CEO of TechBAA, an investor and board member of TPC Technical and CommunitesFIrst, and acting CFO for ALS Communities. In addition to investing and advising companies, Tommy is also a Sales Management coach and is working with companies as a Fractional CMO/CSO. Tommy is a life long football player, coach and Cowboy fan. He currently coaches and sponsors several 7 on 7 teams. He manages/coaches an adult flag football team that is the top team in Florida one of the highest ranked teams in the country. Tommy's hobbies include international travel, fantasy football, reading, and engaging in intelligent political discourse. He is married to a wonderful women for 18 years; which is the best thing he has ever accomplished. He has a dog that is the best dog ever. He also has 9 siblings and roughly 30 nieces and nephews. For more information about tommy, or to request him to speak, please contact him at info@techbaa.com

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1 Comment
  • Randy

    Looks good Tommy. Can’t say I disagree with anything you said. I’m excited to see how free agency and the draft play out for us!

Game Notes

Cowboys, Falcons Week 11 Injury Report

Jess Haynie

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Zack Martin

The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons are both 4-5 and playing to keep their seasons alive. It's a mutual must-win game, and both will have to try to win it without some key players. Once again, we look at this week's injury reports.

Let's begin with your Cowboys, whose report is getting longer as the season wears on:

Dallas Cowboys

  • WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
  • DE Taco Charlton (shoulder) - OUT
  • DT David Irving (ankle) - OUT
  • DT Daniel Ross (calf) - OUT
  • LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - OUT
  • DT Antwaun Woods (concussion) - Doubtful
  • G Zack Martin (knee) - Questionable
  • G Connor Williams (knee) - Questionable
  • DT Maliek Collins (knee) - Questionable
  • LB Joe Thomas (foot) - Questionable

The biggest news is the guy who won't miss tomorrow's game; All-Pro guard Zack Martin is expected to play despite his knee injury from last Sunday night. The Cowboys, already dealing with Travis Frederick's absence and now health issues at left guard, could ill afford to go without Martin in such a pivotal game.

Even if he was healthy, rookie Connor Williams might have a hard time getting in the game. Backup Xavier Su'a-Filo looked like an experienced former second-round pick last week, and he may be the better player for now.

The defensive line has been hit hard, particularly in the middle. With Irving and Ross out, Woods doubtful, and Collins uncertain, Dallas called up DT Christian Ringo from the practice squad. They will also be without Taco Charlton, who could play inside some. Veteran Caraun Reid will be seeing a lot of playing time.

Sean Lee's ongoing absence has become almost an afterthought now with the stellar play of Leighton Vander Esch. We've seen in the past when missing Lee meant disaster on defense, but Dallas' first-round rookie has helped mitigate the damage.

Atlanta Falcons

  • LB Deion Jones (foot) - OUT

It's a short list for Atlanta, but the one name on it is a big one. Arguably the team's best defensive player, Deion Jones will miss the game with a foot injury.

The Falcons' injury issues have been more in players suffering season-ending injuries. Both starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, are on injured reserve. Star running back Devonta Freeman is also there, and those losses help explain Atlanta's 30th-ranked rushing offense.

Both starting safeties are also on IR; Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Atlanta has one of the league's worst passing defense this year without them, ranking 30th in yards allowed and 28th in opponent passer rating.

So yes, the Falcons injury report compared to the Cowboys' may raise some eyebrows. But in terms of who has most of their key guys, Dallas is arguably still better off.



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4 Best Candidates for Cowboys’ Next Offensive Coordinator

Shane Carter

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Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan

The big word around the Dallas Cowboys lately is about Jason Garrett and the future of the head coaching job. Some have speculated that either Quarterback Dak Prescott or Jason Garrett will get axed, and the other will stay.

Owner Jerry Jones was quoted on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas about his young quarterback, putting to bed at least half of the conflict.

"Dak is the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s young and he’s going to get extended."

This shut the door on the idea of Prescott being replaced.

As far as Jason Garrett? Jerry Jones has been less than committed.

"I’m not in the business of backing anybody; the head coach, or offensive coordinator, I just don’t back them publicly." Jerry Jones said.

So it seems that Jason Garrett’s future is up in the air.

But what about offensive coordinator Scott Linehan? What’s held the Cowboys back this year has been the offense, and a lot of it can be contributed to their predictable play calling and inability to adapt to today’s game and its current players.

Whether or not Jason Garrett retains his job, Scott Linehan’s job doesn’t seem near as secure. His scheme doesn’t really mesh with Dak Prescott and how the offense could look. There’s only so many times you can run a three tight end set and not get furious.

Cowboys fans may want Garrett gone but they might have to settle for a new offensive coordinator instead.

The good news is that there are many options out there. Options that not only could work well with Dak Prescott, but could bring the Cowboys offense into the 2010s.

Shane Waldron

Jerry Jones once said how the Cowboys offense was like the LA Rams. If they are able to sign their Co-Offensive Coordinator, then they could be.

When Matt LaFleur left to become the Tennessee Titans OC, the job became a shared job between Waldron and Aaron Kromer. I wonder if Waldron would rather have the job all to himself?

What makes Waldron so appealing is he is also the Rams tight ends coach and passing game coordinator. Those are two areas where the Rams excel and where the Cowboys need help.

Teams are going to start copying the offensive juggernauts of the NFL and the Rams are definitely one of them. The Cowboys should do themselves a favor and get out in front before other teams beat them to it.

Scott Turner

Cam Newton is having one of his best seasons. Not only is he an MVP candidate but he’s set to have career highs in completion percentage and QBR, as well as a career low in interceptions. Cam Newton is a very talented quarterback but some of this has to be attributed to his new Quarterback Coach, Scott Turner.

The son of Norv Turner, Scott has seemingly helped mold Cam into a more accurate passer without compromising who Cam Newton is as an athletic quarterback. That has Dak Prescott written all over it.

He's got NFL lineage and a new, scary Cam Newton to add to his resume. He may not have as impressive a track record as others on here but he looks like he could be a chip off the old block and get the Cowboys where they need to be going.

Lincoln Riley

A popular head coach candidate, Lincoln Riley has shown his creativity and offensive innovation during his short time as Oklahoma’s head coach. It’s uncertain if he’ll get any real offers to be a head coach, but as an OC, he would be a serious grab.

Everyone has seen the work he’s done with Baker Mayfield and now Kyler Murray. How he’s able to incorporate different formations to open up the pass game and have the run game seem unstoppable. Just imagine what he could do with the weapons he would have at his disposal in Dallas.

It's likely that Lincoln Riley is a hot commodity for a head coach position, especially in Cleveland where he could reunite with Baker Mayfield. That shouldn’t stop the Cowboys from trying to lure him to Dallas, though. Lincoln Riley could be the real missing piece that Dallas has been looking for.

Eric Bieniemy

Another product of Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy is the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. The former running backs coach has the experience under Andy Reid on not only how to run an offense but to use your weapons at your disposal to the fullest.

Maybe I’m over-hyping this man but when you see the work he helped put in with Pat Mahomes and how he uses those weapons around him, it makes me imagine what he can do for the Cowboy offense.

The team has no shortage of weapons and could benefit greatly from a guy like this.

If the Chiefs make it past their first playoff game, Bieniemy could become a more attractive name when it comes time for new head coaches. However, if Jerry Jones comes calling and the right offer is met, who’s to say?

If Kris Richard can be lured from Seattle to fix the Cowboys defense, Eric Bieniemy can be lured from Kansas City to fix the Cowboys offense.



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Game Notes

Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta

Sean Martin

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Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta

The Dallas Cowboys play their next three games in 13 days, all critical to their hopes of winning the NFC East despite alternating wins and losses since week one. For the Cowboys to earn consecutive road wins, their first coming on Sunday night at the Eagles, they'll have to come out of Atlanta in much better shape than they did just a year ago.

As expected in the NFL, a lot has changed in this year. The Cowboys 27-7 loss at the Falcons in their first game without Running Back Ezekiel Elliott was the beginning of the end on a season that forced a multitude of coaching changes in Dallas.

The Cowboys stubbornness in allowing Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn to sack Dak Prescott six times by beating Chaz Green and Byron Bell is something they hoped to move past when new positional coaches were brought in at OL, TE, QB, and WR.

It took the team admitting that these moves below Offensive Coordinator Scot Linehan were not all correct two weeks ago for the Cowboys to see any real progress, but with their win last week there's hope that the Cowboys are the improved team expected weeks ago - arrived just in time for Thanksgiving.

Firing Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander was the first move, as the Cowboys named Marc Colombo OL Coach and Hudson Houck his assistant. Colombo told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas this week that he has injured Center Travis Frederick on a headset during games as well.

Colombo, Houck, and Frederick have the Cowboys offensive line confident in their ability to play to their strengths, rewarded with a renewed faith in the zone blocking scheme that was forgotten under Alexander.

If the Cowboys offensive line was their first problem in last year's Falcons loss (it was), it's becoming their biggest strength at the right time in the season.

The Cowboys necessary changes didn't stop here though.

In desperate need of a play maker on the outside, the Cowboys are seeing their investment into Wide Receiver Amari Cooper pay off so far. Cooper is averaging 3.2 yards of separation on his routes this season, ahead of Cole Beasley's 2.6 yards as the next closest pass catcher.

Cooper's presence was a big part of Ezekiel Elliott's 151 yard rushing performance at the Eagles. A player that can win on the outside with ease and dictate coverage has benefited Prescott and the Cowboys game plan on offense enough to send away a first round pick.

It will be up to this "rebuilt" Cowboys offense to match the Falcons on Sunday. Atlanta is averaging 27.1 points per game this season, but a much more dangerous 32.2 at home. After a 1-4 start, the 4-5 Falcons are playing in front of their home fans for the first time in two weeks, losing at the Browns in week ten.

The Cowboys felt they'd be prepared for games like this after their offseason moves, instead needing to show the type of in-season urgency that's been rare for Jason Garrett's team. The same can be said about a Falcons team that's experienced playing with their backs to the wall much sooner than the Cowboys have this season, setting up a big NFC match up in the early slot Sunday.

Dak Prescott will be thankful that Chaz Green nor Byron Bell are protecting him, wanting nothing more than to deliver another win for the Cowboys to take into Thanksgiving against the division-leading Washington Redskins. Not all of the coaches responsible for the lack of adjustment in last year's game are gone. What the Cowboys do have are tangible new ideas from coaches that understand they need more than a win at the defending Super Bowl champions to call this Cowboys season a success.

Tell us what you think about "Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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