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.
Taco Charlton – Starting Right Defensive End
After 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
Cedric 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
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.
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 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
The 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
Damien 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.
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
This 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
Similar 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
Last 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.
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!