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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!

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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 @connorx147 !

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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

Can Cowboys Trust Guard Jonathan Cooper in 2018?

Jess Haynie

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Jonathan Cooper

One of the big decisions facing the Dallas Cowboys in the 2018 offseason is at left guard. Veteran Jonathan Cooper started 13 games last year and is now a free agent. Should Dallas bring Cooper back, or should they look elsewhere for next season’s starter?

With a lot of money already being spent on the rest of the starting offensive line, the Cowboys need a bargain at left guard. They didn’t re-sign Ronald Leary in 2017 for that very reason, hoping Cooper or Chaz Green would be able to handle the job for a fraction of what Leary got from the Denver Broncos.

Cooper took over for Green in Week 4 and held the job the rest of the season. The Cowboys rushing attack remained one of the league’s best, even performing well later in the year when Ezekiel Elliott was suspended. It looked like Jonathan could become part of future plans.

However, in Week 17, Cooper went out of the game with a knee injury. It thankfully wasn’t serious and he is expected to be ready for 2018. However, it was a reminder of the injury-plagued past that has caused the former first-round pick so much trouble.

Jonathan Cooper

Dallas Cowboys Guard Jonathan Cooper

Taken seventh overall in 2013 by the Arizona Cardinals, Jonathan Cooper was one of the true blue-chip guard prospects in recent draft history. He seemed like a can’t-miss pick, and interior linemen don’t often go that high in the draft. The Cowboys have even said they coveted Cooper in that class.

But constant battles with injuries caused Cooper to be traded, released, and discarded by the Cardinals, New England Patriots, and Cleveland Browns over his first four seasons. While 2017 was looking like a turning point for him, Jonathan’s injury in the season finale was a sobering reminder of why he’s become a bargain-bin player.

Still, at just 28-years-old, Cooper has good years left and will now have another offseason for continuity and chemistry development with the Cowboys.

Dallas should have to pay more than a few million to keep Cooper on the roster.

If Dallas is leery (no pun intended) of Cooper, they will have options. La’el Collins could move back to the guard position, allowing the Cowboys to go find either the best guard or tackle who would fit with their existing group.

Given so many other considerations this offseason, Dallas will likely try to simplify things by giving Jonathan Cooper another chance. His history is a red flag, but sometimes you have to take those gambles and save salary cap space to handle other needs.

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Player News

Orlando Scandrick Talks Cowboys’ Disappointing Season on FOX Sports

Mauricio Rodriguez

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Cowboys Headlines - Forget the Triplets: Cowboys Need The Underrated to Shine in 2016
Ashley Landis / The Dallas Morning News

For better or worse, the Cowboys don’t even need to play football to be all over national TV. I guess it’s just part of being the one and only America’s Team. For the second consecutive week, Fox Sports had a Dallas Cowboys’ player on set for Fox’s “Undisputed.”

Just a week ago, Brice Butler made waves with some controversial comments that failed to make him look like a “great teammate.”

This time, Fox’s guest was Cowboys’ Cornerback Orlando Scandrick. Unlike Butler, I really think we should give Scandrick credit for being a very good teammate, and acting like one on his TV appearance.

Throughout the segment, it feels as if Orlando is being tricked into saying something against his teammates. Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe start bashing on Dez Bryant‘s performance and the fact that he should be replaced.

Of course, this is the kind of stuff fans in Cowboys Nation are thinking about. Heck, I really wouldn’t even mind if Dez isn’t wearing a star next season. However, I really disliked Butler’s comments when asked if he would’ve done a better job if given the same opportunities as Dez.

Scandrick’s responses were awesome though. When asked if he would defend Dez, he didn’t even hesitate.

“I don’t think he’s lost any confidence. He’s one of the most confident players I’ve ever been around. I think it can all be fixed. I think he just needs to get back to work and get back to the basics.” – Orlando Scandrick on Dez Bryant.

Scandrick also answered questions about what went wrong with the Cowboys this season by pointing out the fact they lost one of their best players because of a suspension, and some injuries. But he also said what’s been in our minds for a long time. When asked what was the biggest reason they struggled, he said some painful, yet truthful words: “We played some bad football against some very good teams.”

Later, he was asked about how Sean Lee’s absence affected the defense, he insisted they didn’t step up. At the end of the day, the NFL is a league in which you can’t be that dependent on a single player.

Sean Lee is an awesome player, but I think we’d all like to see this defense be a little less dependent on him.

Scandrick even had to defend Dak Prescott.

Dak was highly criticized after a sophomore season in which he struggled, alongside the entire team. But in the words of Orlando, we should “give him time.” Dak had a lot on his plate, but he made a lot of progress for the Cowboys.

You can listen to the entire interview here.

Orlando Scandrick’s time in Dallas may be coming to an end, especially with young guys like Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis taking over. He’s signed through 2019, so who knows; maybe we see him wearing the star for a bit longer.

“It’s always a possibility.” – Orlando Scandrick on potentially not returning to Dallas next season.

Even still, it’s nice to see him support his football team and his friends on a show which featured a non-starting Cowboys’ wide receiver taking shots against his team. Orlando Scandrick deserves an applause.

Tell me what you think about “Orlando Scandrick Talks Cowboys’ Disappointing Season on FOX Sports” in the comments below, or tweet me @PepoR99 and let’s talk football! If you like football and are looking for a Dallas Cowboys show in Spanish, don’t miss my weekly Facebook Live! show, Primero Cowboys!

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Dallas Cowboys

Should Cowboys Pursue Veteran Backup at Quarterback?

Jess Haynie

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Cowboys en Español: Cooper Rush
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys only have two quarterbacks under contract right now, starter Dak Prescott and backup Cooper Rush. With only three years of combined experience between them, one could argue that a veteran presence would be useful. Should Dallas make a veteran QB a free-agent priority in the 2018 offseason?

Of course, there’s plenty of other QB experience on the Cowboys staff. Head Coach Jason Garrett played professionally from 1989-2004, and started his coaching career with quarterbacks.

Scott Linehan has been coaching offense with an emphasis on the passing game for 30 years.

Kellen Moore, who is taking over for the departed Wade Wilson as quarterbacks coach, has played very recently and will bring a fresh perspective.

However, losing Wilson’s experience from the room, and the lack of any veteran player at QB, shouldn’t be dismissed.

Dak Prescott has said veteran Mark Sanchez — who was with Dallas in 2016 — was a major help during his whirlwind rookie season. Tony Romo enjoyed veteran advice from guys like Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna, and Kyle Orton throughout his playing career.

This isn’t to say Dallas would want to bring in a veteran to knock Cooper Rush down the depth chart. After a surprising preseason, Rush took the backup job from Kellen Moore and certainly has intriguing upside.

If the Cowboys were to add a veteran, that player would have to come in with the understanding he’s competing with Cooper and may not be guaranteed a job.

The good news is that it’ll be a buyer’s market for veteran quarterbacks this offseason.

Guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh McCown, and Matt Moore could all be available. Even a player with more pedigree, such as Sam Bradford, may have trouble finding starting work with many jobs taken among the NFL’s 32 teams.

Dallas could even consider bringing back Mark Sanchez, given his previous relationship with Dak Prescott. He only had a one-year deal with the Chicago Bears.

Given Prescott’s seeming durability, Dallas will likely only keep two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster in 2018 and for years to come. Because of that, they may be content to focus on Dak and Cooper Rush, and just get through the offseason with training camp bodies.

However, the case can certainly be made for adding another veteran player with the desire to teach to help these young quarterbacks develop. Prescott was not the same guy in 2017 that we saw as a rookie, and perhaps the absence of guys like Sanchez and Tony on the sideline had something to do with that.

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