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Early Projection of the Dallas Cowboys Starting Defense

After losing , , Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, and to , the Cowboys had a lot of work to do to rebuild this . Adding , , Nolan Carroll, , Xavier Woods, Jourdan Lewis, and to the mix was quite the start. Plus  and Charles Tapper.

Knowing what we know about ( and Nolan Carroll) and players rehabbing from , I wanted to take a swing at predicting the 2017 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 , but everything we've heard from Stephen and 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 Team 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 (96) sacks Cleveland Browns quarterback Cody Kessler (6) during the second half at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Cowboys won 35-10. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze- 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 . 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 , 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 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 Lee is one of the few question marks on this roster.

When healthy, Lee can and will play any three of the 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

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 , Jones is a top player on this defense.

While I listed Byron as a strong 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 to Morris Claiborne and 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!

Connor Livesay
Connor Livesayhttps://insidethestar.com/
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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Comments

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. 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.

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