The weeks before and after every NFL Draft are when we naturally focus too much on the rookies. Sure, these players could shape the future of the franchise some day. But far more than Trevon Diggs or Neville Gallimore, it will be the veteran free agent additions who decide how the Dallas Cowboys’ defense performs in 2020.
The Cowboys brought in some big names during the second wave of free agency: Defensive Tackles Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, plus Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. These guys bring a combined nine Pro Bowls and were all former 1st-Round draft picks.
McCoy and Poe have been full-time starters since Week One of their rookie seasons. Clinton-Dix became a starter in his seventh game as a rookie and has been one ever since.
While none of these players were the priciest, top free agents available at their positions, this isn’t the usual bargain bin activity we’re used to from the Cowboys’ offseasons. These are legitimate investments, immediate new starters, to help boost the defense.
I’ve been surprised by the lack of fanfare around these moves, especially when it comes to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. It’s almost like the hype around trying to get Earl Thomas or Jamal Adams the last few years made this signing feel like a letdown.
But say what you want about some of the flaws in his game; Ha Ha is better than most of the safeties we’ve had in Dallas for the last decade.
Sure, Gerald McCoy is 32 and in his twilight years. But he’s still better than Maliek Collins.
And yeah, Dontari Poe is coming off a torn quad last year. But he’s our first true nose tackle in years and a significant talent upgrade over Antwaun Woods, Terrell McClain, or anyone else we’ve had as a run stuffer since converting to the 4-3 defense.
Again, these aren’t your usual Garrett Era free agent moves.
Since switching to the 4-3 scheme under Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, the Cowboys defense has been built to not give up big plays. It was designed to compliment an offense which would chew up clock and put up enough points to win if the opponent’s scoring was held in check.
That strategy has generally worked in the regular season against the bad-to-average opponents. But playoff contenders have the play-making talent to beat that kind of defense. We’ve seen that play out in Dallas’ early playoff exits and other close-game losses.
It appears that the Cowboys defense under Mike McCarthy and Mike Nolan will be using a different strategy. They are adopting the more aggressive approach of trying to force turnovers rather than field goals.
Again, look at Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. While he has been known to give up some big plays, he’s also pulled in 16 interceptions in his seven seasons.
The entire Cowboys defense only had seven interceptions last year.
Clinton-Dix, along with Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, reflect the Cowboys’ desire to add more play-makers to the defense. These are all guys who’ve earned Pro Bowl trips off impact plays.
Sure, there are red flags in every case. McCoy’s age, Poe’s injury, Ha Ha’s occasional errors and tackling issues; they’re why these players were still available in late March and early April.
But all of these veterans have proven that they can be game-changers. They’re upgrades over the “bend but don’t break” journeymen that Dallas has employed for a while now at their positions.
And far more than any Day 2 rookies, these new free agent additions will be what makes or breaks the Cowboys’ defense in 2020.