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Early Projection of the Dallas Cowboys Starting Defense

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- Week 2: Dallas Cowboys At Washington Redskins
AP Photo / Brandon Wade

After losing Terrell McClain, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, and J.J. Wilcox to free agency, the Cowboys had a lot of work to do to rebuild this defense. Adding Taco Charlton, Stephen Paea, Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, Xavier Woods, Jourdan Lewis, and Marquez White to the mix was quite the start. Plus Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper.

Knowing what we know about suspensions (David Irving and Nolan Carroll) and players rehabbing from injury, I wanted to take a swing at predicting the 2017 Dallas Cowboys starting defense.

Defensive Line

Taco Charlton - Starting Right Defensive End

Projecting The Cowboys Starting Defense - Pre Training CampAfter being drafted with the 28th overall pick in the first round of this year's draft, the Dallas Cowboys will rely heavily on Taco Charlton to play a pivotal role for the defense.

Charlton has the traits to play all over this defensive line, but everything we've heard from Stephen and Jerry Jones suggests he will get the start at RDE.

Cedric Thornton - Starting 1-Technique 

Cowboys Headlines - "We Hate Them" Ex-Eagle DT Cedric Thornton Speaks On Former TeamCedric Thornton received a four-year, $18 million contract last year in free agency to be a difference maker on the defensive line. Thornton ended up being a back-up last year, getting pushed down the depth chart due to the productive play of Terrell McClain.

Thornton had flashes last year of being a disruptive player, but struggled to show that consistently.

Thornton will have to be on his "A" game again this training camp with the Cowboys bringing in Stephen Paea during free agency. After spending a year in Dallas and learning a new scheme, we may see a whole different player in Cedric Thornton come the start of the season.

Maliek Collins - Starting 3-Technique

The Cowboys Defense Have Young Foundation Players To Build Around

Nov 6, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins (96) sacks Cleveland Browns quarterback Cody Kessler (6) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Cowboys won 35-10. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

One of the many rookie standouts from last season, Maliek Collins was quite the surprise after being selected in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. After injuring his foot last offseason, he missed training camp and all of the preseason, and was projected to start the year on PUP.

Collins, surprisingly, did not start the year on PUP and played a decent amount of snaps in the beginning of the year and had success. But he really got going at the back-end of the season, getting five sacks playing in his final eight games.

Collins will be looked at as one of the leaders on the defense this year after finishing second in sacks.

DeMarcus Lawrence - Starting Left Defensive End

This may be the toughest position to decide on. Tyrone Crawford was neck and neck with him, but I gave the nod to Lawrence. We all know DeMarcus Lawrence as the guy Dallas traded up for in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and has yet to live up to those high expectations.

While Lawrence hasn't set the world on fire, he definitely wouldn't be considered a bust in my book either.

When healthy, you see the type of player he could potentially be, but that is the main issue with DLaw.

He's never healthy.

In his four years with the Cowboys, Lawrence had his most productive year playing on the left side, finishing that year with eight sacks.

Lawrence knows the importance of this year; he will be a free agent at the end of the 2017 season. With only nine total sacks on his resume, DeMarcus Lawrence is due for a big year.

Cowboys Headlines - Reel Talk: Could DeMarcus Lawrence Fill the Cowboys Void at Right Defensive End? 2

Dallas Cowboys DE DeMarcus Lawrence (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)

Linebackers

Sean Lee - Starting WILL Linebacker

Sean LeeSean Lee is one of the few question marks on this roster.

When healthy, Lee can and will play any three of the linebacker spots. Sean Lee stayed healthier and seemed to make more plays last year than in previous years after moving from the MIKE to the WILL.

While he did have more tackles and seemed to be around the ball more, his turnover numbers were non-existent. Lee finished the year with zero interceptions and zero forced fumbles. That is something I'm sure he will try to improve on this offseason.

Jaylon Smith - Starting MIKE Linebacker

Projecting The Cowboys Starting Defense - Pre Training Camp 1The biggest mystery on this Cowboys defense is no surprise: Jaylon Smith. Is he healthy? Is he wearing the brace? Can he be productive with the brace?

There are so many questions surrounding Jaylon Smith right now it's almost funny to read.

One thing is certain, Jaylon Smith is on the field and doing what every other healthy linebacker on the Cowboys' roster is doing.

Smith still has almost four months before the start of the season. The progress he's made since this time last year has been remarkable. We'll have to wait and see, but I have a good feeling #54 will be staring Eli Manning in the eyes come September 10th.

Damien Wilson - Starting SAM Linebacker

Cowboys Headlines - Damien Wilson "Eyeing" Bigger Defensive RoleDamien Wilson was one of my favorite players on the Cowboys roster last year. The team hasn't had the sideline to sideline player (excluding Sean Lee) of Wilson's caliber in what seems like forever.

While still young, Damien Wilson showed his ability to start and make plenty of plays last year and -- to me  -- earned himself a starting job as a strong side linebacker.

Secondary

Dallas Cowboys Player Profile: FS #31 Byron Jones 5

Byron Jones - Starting Strong Safety

Byron Jones has cemented himself as one of the key pieces on this defense. Whether it's his ability to lock onto a tight end and keep him quiet, or come up and make a huge stop on a running back, Jones is a top player on this defense.

While I listed Byron as a strong safety, he will play all over in the secondary.

Xavier Woods - Starting Free Safety

2017 Cowboys Draft Target: Louisiana Tech S Xavier WoodsThis may surprise a few people. Woods was drafted in the sixth round of this years draft and has Jeff Heath currently in front of him on the depth chart. I think before the start of the season Xavier Woods will beat Jeff Heath out and take over as the starter.

Woods has a play making ability similar to Jeff Heath, but I think he brings more to the table.

The Cowboys play a lot of three safety sets when in nickel or dime so there will be plenty of plays where Byron Jones, Xavier Woods, and Jeff Heath are all on the field making plays.

Anthony Brown - Starting Cornerback

Anthony BrownSimilar to Maliek Collins, Anthony Brown was a big surprise last season as a rookie. Brown was thrown into the deep end early and kept his head above water.

Due to injuries to Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick throughout the year, Anthony Brown was forced to play, and even start last season as a rookie. Brown will look to earn an even bigger role on the defense during training camp.

Orlando Scandrick - Starting Cornerback

Scandrick is one of the few veterans the Cowboys' have as an option at cornerback. Scandrick had a down year last year after coming back from a gruesome knee injury in 2015. With a full offseason to get fully healthy, I predict Scandrick returns and is the player he was in 2014.

Chidobe Awuzie - Starting NICKEL Cornerback

Dallas Cowboys: 5 Players To Watch At Rookie Minicamp 2Last but not least we have second round pick Chidobe Awuzie. And yes, I know this would bring my total to 12 players. The Cowboys play a ton of nickel defense. Which normally means a linebacker goes off the field (Damien Wilson) and an extra secondary player comes on the field (Chidobe Awuzie).

This is where Chidobe Awuzie would get the start in nickel situations.

We're not sure yet whether the new Cowboy will be playing outside or inside, so my prediction is in nickel situations. Orlando Scandrick would slide inside to the slot and Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown would start on the outside.

Overview

When we look at the starting defense I put together here, it becomes clear just how young the defense is. The average age is 24 years old. While that is a good thing, the veterans on this team need to lead by example. On the field and off the field.

This is a very early projection and I will be doing a final prediction on the starting defense after training camp. Some of our questions will likely be answered and we may even leave training camp with more questions. After free agency and the draft, there is plenty of competition up and down this defensive depth chart.

Hope you enjoyed my predictions and would love to hear yours as well!



Born in 1995, loved Football but more importantly the Dallas Cowboys since day one. Living in Redskins Country flying the Blue and Silver flag as high as possible. Covering the Dallas Cowboys for InsideTheStar.com and CowboysNation.com. Catch me on twitter @ConnorNFLDraft!

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23 Comments
  • Mr. Jaguar

    Don’t forget. Lewis and White, they are both ball hawks

  • leo thomas

    I like these young players stepping up

  • Albert Smith

    They need to put Scandrick in the nickel when healthy he’s best there put Awuzie on the outside.

  • Kevin Black

    I think you’ll see the starting CBs against the NY Giants will be: Nolan Carrroll on the right, Orlando Scandrick on the nickel and Anthony Brown on the left. This is all barring injury.

    Now, by the end of the season, I see the starting CBs will be: Chido Awuzie on the right, Jourdan Lewis on the nickel and Anthony Brown on the left. This is all barring injury.

  • Travis Diggs

    Scandrick showed us last year he cant guard odell or none of those top receivers, he’s always played his best in the slot. Halfway through this season I think this whole secondary will be young with Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods. I like the Woods move the most because Cowboys fans really expect Heath to be the guy from the playoff game all season, Is he really that guy??? Xavier Woods will complement Byron Jones really well

    • Hammer33

      Is Xavier Woods that guy???? At least Heath has proven to be an NFL level safety. Woods has prove nothing. Anyone but Heath, even a 6th round pick.

      • Travis Diggs

        The only reason why people think Heath can be that guy is because we seen him in ONE game that stood out, outside of the playoff game when else last year did we hear Heath’s name called , thats not a proven safety He’s the special teams leader. America always wants the ” great white hope story” Halfway through the season we’ll be right back here talking about how he couldnt keep the starting job

        • Hammer33

          I’ll spin it around on you. How many people don’t think Heath can play because he’s the best white whatever. Race plays no part in this story, or shouldn’t. You brought it up so I assume it’s an issue for you.

          Heath has played solid football for 3 years. Not hearing his name isn’t necessarily bad if you’re a safety. His coaches, front office and teammates think highly enough of him to give him the chance.

          If you have only noticed in one game, then maybe you don’t pay attention. I guess we’ll see, cause he’s getting his shot. Of course, he’s white so he’s not really fast or athletic.

          Stupid comment.

          • Travis Diggs

            Stupid comment or real comment?? On a average defense you will get every shot to seperate yourself from the pack, in 3 years he’s been back up to back ups but he’s your guy right?? Back up to JJ wilcox who couldnt cover worth a damn, that says alot about his skills, like I said ONE game, name another game last year he impacted….??? I’ll wait. Jeff heath is known because he paralyzed a guy from seattle, thats how we know who he is

          • Hammer33

            Wow, I’m done

            You’re an idiot

          • Travis Diggs

            I love how passionate white people are over Jeff heath, its hilarious. Even dc.com and insidethestar mock him by calling him “the greatest cowboy alive” LMFAO.

          • Hammer33

            I like how dismissive black people are of white atheletes.

            You’re a racist ass.

          • Travis Diggs

            Just stating facts Maybe their racist facts but their facts, how many white dbs are their in the league?? I can count Smith and Weddle on my one hand and their both slow. White people arent typically fast, am i lying?? So why should i feel comfortable about Heath , he’s definitely not weddle or smith. He’s a average safety which means everybody on the roster has a chance I chose the more athletic black guy and yall chose the peoples champ. Thats simple. When odell and company come to dallas for week one I dont want that slow safety back there Thats it

          • Hammer33

            My hope is that you’re young. I’m sure these conversations go on between you and your friends. And I’m sure you believe them.

            When you post the racist shit have, you have to hope that a lot of people don’t read it. Some may believe it and get in your corner, most will just shake their heads and move on.

            Oh, BTW. Heath ran a 2.55 20. They don’t time the 40 in pro ball. He’s the FASTEST dude on the cowboys, two years running. Gotta drive the brothers crazy. And yes, in my line of work I get that type of information.

            You won’t believe it. But coming from your background, I wouldn’t expect an open mind.

            Good luck

          • Travis Diggs

            Not young just educated in a sport and topic that makes most people uncomfortable. While you may believe Heath is that fast, then why has he only made it past back up safety on a average defense, this team emphasizes player flex heavy, why hasn’t he been used in the kick return or punt return, they rather use bum ass lucky whitehead Cowboys nation have to get out of their emotions with Jeff he will be ok, but he will not be a starter for this defense Sorry

          • https://InsideTheStar.com/ Bryson Treece

            Who’s mocking him? Forget 2013. Every player has bad years. And it’s GOAT btw, not greatest Cowboy alive.

            As for the white/black thing; making that distinction just worsens the problem. Th intent doesn’t even matter. ijs

          • Travis Diggs

            Fair point. I personally have no problem with Jeff Heath as a player for this defense , the topic and main issue was him starting. The cowboys have brought in a draft class with many young and athletic players i do believe will impact this defense early on. Heath will get his playing time but my issue was him taking command of the back end of this defense like Church did. I only brought race in the topic because Heath gets the benefit of the doubt because he’s white How does a special teams player get this much hype when he’s barely on the field, we all know why. He’s treated by Cowboys nation like he’s going to be the savior of the defense If that was the case, don’t you think he woulda started by now???

          • https://InsideTheStar.com/ Bryson Treece

            I’ve never been a huge fan of Heath, aside from the INTs. And that’s the thing these last 2 years; when he’s on D, he INTs more than anyone else on the team. People remember that more than his lack of playing time and/or skills. I don’t think he can command the D as well as Church, or even Wilcox. But he’s a good rotational player. Has spark. Maybe more.

            The move away from Wilcox and Church might be an opening. Coaches could’ve seen the releases coming this year and put more focus into teaching him while the vets held things down. If Heath’s potential is clear enough to them, that’s very possible.

            But camp will help.

            The race thing on the football field is a bit ridiculous. Fans can do w/e, but if black/white still matters for getting on the field, I can’t tell. Not in Dallas, at least. But every position is a bit different (e.g., QB, TE verses RB, WR). All told, I don’t see a black safety or a white safety, I see INT or no INT; blown coverage giving up the deep ball, or Eli crying again.

            Just a pet-peeve about racism for me. Let the politicians play their games; the only colors that matter on ITS are blue and silver.

  • Russ_Te

    This will be a fantastic camp with all of these wide open position battles. How that goes is only a guess right now of course. However;

    Jones at SS, don’t think so. Too talented to play up in the scrum, not big enough to avoid injury there. The fact that he has to be on the field, as the most talented DB, allows some decent projections for how the pieces fit though.

    Jones is probably starting the year at FS, but if Woods comes on big this year, then you have to put him in the starting lineup because of his ball skills. That can only be at FS – again, too small for SS.

    So that moves Jones back to CB. He has 4.3 speed and can leap, and with more reps at CB has a great chance to excel there.

    So it’s only a guess, but by Thanksgiving my projection is Awuzie and Jones at starting CB’s, Woods starting at FS, and somebody at SS not named Heath.

    Now you factor in Jaylon Smith. If healthy he has to stay in the game on long downs – again too talented not to. So where you would normally have 6 or 7 DB’s in for a long down, this defense might go with one less so that Smith can stay in the game. I think if this pans out that offenses will not know what he is doing on the play. Might cover, might blitz.

    • Hammer33

      Again, anyone but Heath. Most fans, including you are clueless.

      • Russ_Te

        Not able to give specific rebuttal then…
        ;^)

        • Hammer33

          Rebuttal to what? You, or the racist idiot?

        • Hammer33

          Nah, I’ll save my debates for live humans. Trying to get across an idea online is impossible.

          BTW, my apologies for calling you clueless. I’m sure you have your reasons for your opinion.

          Have a good one

Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys NFC East Title Put on Hold with Redskins Win, Shutout Loss at Colts

Sean Martin

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Cowboys NFC East Title Put on Hold with Redskins Win, Shutout Loss at Colts

For the first time since 2003, the Dallas Cowboys were shutout on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Their five game winning streak snapped, the Cowboys also saw their chances at clinching the NFC East dashed before the late kickoffs. Needing both a Redskins and Eagles loss to win the division without the benefit of a win themselves, the Redskins kept their playoff hopes alive with a walk off field goal at the Jaguars.

Washington Quarterback Josh Johnson won his second start since 2013 with 151 yards and one touchdown. The Redskins aren't the only NFC East team playing with a backup QB, as the Eagles must once again rally around Nick Foles against the Rams to extend their shot at the playoffs on Sunday Night Football. 

The Cowboys certainly didn't deserve a celebration of any kind after their performance at the Colts. An emotional letdown after a win streak that featured triumphs over the Eagles twice, Redskins, and Saints, the Cowboys were slowed to a complete stop on offense while struggling fundamentally on defense.

Uncharacteristic missed tackles and lack of pressure on Colts Quarterback Andrew Luck allowed Indianapolis to turn a 10-0 halftime lead into an easy 23-0 win. Defending their home field, the Colts came out like a team still fighting for their playoff lives, while Dallas played like a team knowing two more chances at winning the division are still to come.

Instead of being able to watch and root against the Eagles tonight, the Cowboys can focus on not letting an embarrassing loss define a season that'll still end on a high note should they defeat the Buccaneers or Giants. A week 16 or 17 win automatically seals the division for the Cowboys, even with the Redskins improving to 7-7 moments before the Colts secured their shutout.

It was a masterful performance from Colts Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus, preparing his team against Scott Linehan's offense to disrupt the momentum of one of the league's hottest teams.

Praising the Redskins for defeating a Jaguars team the Cowboys handled 40-7 much earlier in the season is hardly the situation Cowboys Nation wants to be in right now, but the team still has everything in front of them once Sunday's sixth loss is put behind them.

Tell us what you think about "Cowboys NFC East Title Put on Hold with Redskins Win, Shutout Loss at Colts" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Game Notes

IND 23, DAL 0: Cowboys Get Shut Out, Embarrassed by Colts

Jess Haynie

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Is Dak Prescott's Relationship with Scott Linehan Broken?

The Dallas Cowboys must think they've already won the NFC East, because they looked like a team with nothing to play for today. The result was an embarrassing 23-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

The Cowboys were shut out for the first time since the 2003 season, which was Jason Witten's rookie year.

Dallas squandered a major time-of-possession advantage in the first half, finishing three drives with a blocked field goal, punt, and a failed 4th-and-1 play near the Colts' goal line. Indianapolis capitalized on their own drives and took a 10-0 lead into halftime.

The Colts got the ball back to start the third quarter and drove down for another touchdown. Down 17-0, Dallas responded with a weak drive and a punt. The game felt out of reach even then, with the Cowboys just looking flat from that point forward.

Ezekiel Elliott had 87 rushing yards 41 receiving for some empty production. Amari Cooper won't be winning any awards this week, held to just four catches for 32 yards.

Dak Prescott completed 62% of his passes for 206 yards. He was sacked three times and threw a late interception; an overthrown ball got tipped by the receiver and picked off on the team's final offensive series.

While the offense was especially bad today, the defense wasn't much better. Dallas surrendered 139 yards rushing yards and two touchdown to Colts RB Marlon Mack, who hadn't had a 100-yard game since October. Andrew Luck wasn't sacked and went virtually untouched the entire day.

The Cowboys could have taken the NFC East with a win, but they didn't come close. Hopefully this serves as a wake-up call with the postseason only a few weeks away.

Other Notes

  • With the Redskins defeating the Jaguars today, Dallas will have to wait until next week to try to clinch the NFC East. The Cowboys needed losses by both Washington and Philadelphia if they didn't win themselves. The Eagles are visiting the Rams tonight.
  • The Cowboys will get some softer competition to finish the year, hosting the Buccaneers next week and then going to play the Giants in Week 17.
  • With the Bears defeating the Packers today and moving to 10-4, they will likely stay the #3 seed in the playoffs. That means Dallas, assuming they do win the NFC East, will almost certainly be hosting the 5th-seeded Seahawks in the first round.
  • Jaylon Smith led the Cowboys with 11 tackles, but neither he or Leighton Vander Esch were making the big plays that we've grown accustomed to.
  • Xavier Woods had the highlight play on defense, delivering a perfect hit to dislodge the ball from Colts TE Eric Ebron and stop a potential big gain.
  • Blake Jarin and Dalton Schultz combined for seven catches for 68 yards; another week of increased TE production from what we've seen must of the year.
  • Fullback Jamize Olawale doesn't get many opportunities on offense, and he may not get more after dropping an open touchdown on the team's second drive of the day.



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Game Notes

Cowboys Can’t Finish Drives, Trailing Colts 10-0 at Halftime

Jess Haynie

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Dak Prescott

The Cowboys have had no trouble moving the ball today, but they've failed to finish drives with points. Dallas is thus trailing the Indianapolis Colts 10-0 at halftime.

Dallas has had possession for over 19 minutes compared to just 10 for the Colts. But their three drives have ended with a blocked field goal, a failed 4th-and-1 play near the endzone, and a punt.

Ezekiel Elliott has 64 rushing yards and 23 receiving so far today. Dak Prescott has completed 12-of-19 for 106 yards, but has been sacked twice.

The offensive line continues to suffer from health issues. With Zack Martin already out and Connor Williams starting at right guard, Xavier Su'a-Filo left the game with an eye injury during the second quarter and will not return. Backup Adam Redmond is now playing.

The Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win in any of their final three games. They could also clinch today if the Redskins and Eagles lose. Washington is trailing 10-3 in Jacksonville at halftime, and the Eagles are visiting the Rams tonight.

Hopefully, Dallas will start showing up on the scoreboard in the second half.



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