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Fixing The Dallas Cowboys Defense

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Fixing The Dallas Cowboys Defense

The Cowboys’ offense still has some weaknesses but overall, the Cowboys are pretty set on offense.

This past week they looked at a couple of veterans to play Guard and backup Wide Receiver – which are really their biggest needs on offense – But while they could use an upgrade at Guard and will need to look ahead to 2015 to find a replacement for Doug Free at Right Tackle, the offensive players are not the biggest problems the Cowboys have. With the addition of Scott Linehan and Garrett taking a hands-off approach to the offense in 2014, the Cowboys have the necessary talent on offense to be playoff contenders in 2014.

The defense is another story. Last season, the Cowboys had the worst defense in their 54-year history and they have some gaping holes that need to be filled. Can the Cowboys turn it around in 2014? Is it even a possibility, or are we Cowboys fans doomed to another season of 8-8, or worse?

The silver lining is that even with the worst defense in the storied history of America’s Team the ‘Boys were really, really close to being in the playoffs last year. I believe it’s possible to turn this team around if the Cowboys make good use of the upcoming draft, and if they can avoid the injuries that decimated them last year.

Here is what I’d like to see on opening day for the Cowboys’ defense:

LCB – Morris Claiborne

I still think there is a big reason for the entire NFL believing Claiborne was the top defensive player in the 2012 draft. I was upset that the Cowboys traded up to get him because I thought they needed more players, but that doesn’t mean that his sophomore slump should stop the Cowboys from pushing him to be the starter in 2014.

He had a very solid rookie season, followed by a disappointing injury-plagued 2nd year. I think he is motivated to bounce back strong in 2014. If the Cowboys get decent play from the Free Safety position then Claiborne will look much better this season.

RCB – Brandon Carr

Unlike Courtland Finnegan – who was cut from the Rams only two seasons after signing his $50 million free agent contract – Carr still has a lot in the tank. Did the Cowboys overpay? Absolutely! But that is almost always the case in Free Agency.

So forget about the salary, and just look at Carr as a player. He’s a big strong corner who can manhandle receivers coming off the line. Maybe he’s not an All-Star player, but he’s more than solid.

NCB – Orlando Scandrick

Scandrick has challenged for a starting job. He fought Mike Jenkins for the job back in 2009 and Scandrick pushed Jenkins to his only Pro Bowl performance.

Last year, Scandrick took the job away from the injured Morris Claiborne by the end of the season, but ultimately Claiborne has more talent than Scandrick so he should reclaim his starting position. Regardless, Scandrick has proven to be the best 5th round pick the Cowboys have made in recent years.

The Cowboys restructured his contract last year to make it more CAP friendly and Scandrick ultimately took a pay-cut over the next three seasons, but he was rewarded with a 2-year contract extension that is CAP friendly for the Cowboys. Scandrick is one of the best 3rd cornerbacks in the NFL and the Cowboys should be thankful to have him.

FS – Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix (1st round) or Deion Bucannon (2nd round) or Matt Johnson

If the Cowboys end up with Clinton-Dix in the first round he immediately becomes the starter. Barring that, I think Johnson is the best option for the Cowboys (providing he can stay healthy). Both Clinton-Dix and Johnson have the talent to solidify the Free Safety position.

What about Calvin Pryor? I think he’s more suited to play Strong Safety and Free Safety is really where the Cowboys need help. But Pryor at Free Safety would still be an upgrade – He just doesn’t have the cover skills of Clinton-Dix. Johnson has instincts that are off the chart, but he hasn’t been healthy the last three seasons – including his final year in college. If Johnson can remain healthy, he might be a huge surprise for the Cowboys. Since he clearly cannot be counted upon so far, Dallas would be well-suited drafting a true Free Safety this May.

The Cowboys brought in Jimmie Ward for a visit, but I believe that Deion Bucannon would be a better choice in the 2nd round if they don’t get a shot at Clinton-Dix in the 1st round. A 3rd round option is Terrance Brooks out of Florida State.

SS – Barry Church or J.J. Wilcox

Wilcox has all the raw talent in the world, and he has the big-hitting instincts you love in a Strong Safety. The question is whether or not he develops that talent this season, or will the Cowboys have to wait another year for him to come into his own. I think it would be a HUGE, HUGE mistake to try to put Wilcox at Free Safety; he just doesn’t have the instincts to play the position at a high level. But he could become a Pro Bowl level Strong Safety.

In the mean time, Barry Church is a good tackler. His coverage skills are atrocious and many of his tackles came after the first down was already made. But on a historically bad defense, at least he tried to clean up for the lack of production from the front-seven.

It would be a waste for Dallas to select another Strong Safety in the draft. They have two guys that must be allowed to fight for the position – The competition should make both of them better. Wilcox has the talent. Church has the strong work ethic and a better understanding of how to play the position. I’m looking forward to an epic battle for the starting position that lasts beyond training camp and into the season – that is, if the coaches are smart enough to put Wilcox at Strong Safety where he belongs and not impede his progress by trying to play him as Free Safety.

WLB – Bruce Carter

Carter flat-out got exposed at times last year when covering passes – especially on wheel routes – but his performance actually improved toward the end of the season. I think Bruce will bounce back strong in 2014, especially if the Cowboys solidify Free Safety. Carter was once considered a top 15 prospect, and too many Cowboys fans are giving up on him too soon.

He has the talent and I believe he keeps his job in 2014 with a much better year than he had in 2013. I’m not willing to say he’ll jump to the Pro Bowl level until I see him actually produce but I don’t think he’ll be as bad as last year.

MLB – Sean Lee

Lee just signed a huge contract last year. The fact that he’s been repeatedly injured has some fans and pundits wanting to move him out of the MLB position and draft someone like C.J. Mosley but, that’s a mistake.

Lee is the new face of the Cowboys defense and they paid him to play middle linebacker. He has the natural instincts of a middle linebacker, and his ability to drop back in coverage in the middle of the field is vital to the style of defense Rod Marinelli wants to play.

There is just no scenario in which the Cowboys move him to outside linebacker. Lee is the Cowboys “Brian Urlacher,” and even if the fans are disappointed with his injuries, there is no way Dallas moves him from his natural position this year or anytime in the foreseeable future.

SLB – Kyle Wilbur

This is the year for the 2012 draft class to step up and prove its worth. Wilbur was a man in search of a position a year ago. The Cowboys started him at backup defensive end at the beginning of the year but by the end he was moved to strong side linebacker because of injuries.

Wilbur played linebacker in college, and he surprised everyone by playing better than Durant or Holloman on the strong side. The extra weight he added to play defensive end ironically made him a much, much better linebacker. The Cowboys should be excited that they may have found the answer to their search for strong side linebacker by accident.

LDE – Anthony Barr (1st round) or Kareem Martin (2nd round)

Anthony Barr should be the #1 target of the Cowboys. If they have to package their 1st and 4th round picks to move up to get him then they should do it. Heck, throw in one of their six 7th round picks to go with it. More than Aaron Donald or Clinton-Dix, the Cowboys need a pass rusher to replace DeMarcus Ware. Barr is being compared to Ware coming out of college nine years ago, and he would go a long way toward helping the Cowboys’ defensive line recover from the debacle of 2013.

I don’t think Martin is on the Cowboys’ radar, but I would pick him over Scott Crichton or DeMarcus Lawrence, both of whom the Cowboys did bring in for visits. Both of those players are more suited to play RDE than LDE, in my opinion. If the Cowboys miss out on both Barr and Martin, then I think their next best option is starting journeyman Jeremy Mincey and drafting Will Clarke in the 4th round. But Barr is my top target in May if I’m sitting in the Cowboys’ front office.

3-Tech DT – Henry Melton

Prior to signing Melton I was high on Aaron Donald, just like so many others. I’m still high on him, but there are higher-priority needs now that Melton has signed. The NFL landscape is full of players who have come back strong from ACL injuries and had very, very productive careers. The ACL injury is not the career-ending injury it once was.

These days, players tend to come back from those types of injuries even stronger than before they got injured. If you put Barr next to Henry Melton, Melton will have a monster season in 2014 and return to Pro Bowl form. Does that mean I don’t draft Donald if both Barr and Clinton-Dix are gone? No. Donald would be a heck of a consolation prize. But Melton gives the Cowboys the luxury of looking first at a pass-rushing defensive end and free safety in the 1st round.

1-technique DT – Ra’Shede Hageman (1st round) Will Sutton (3rd round) or Ego Ferguson (3rd round)

I’m in agreement with the notion that you don’t spend 1st round picks on 1-technique defensive tackles.

However, if Barr, Clinton-Dix and Donald are all off the board when the Cowboys pick at #16, then I would be in favor of a trade back in the 1st round with someone like Green Bay, Carolina or San Francisco. If you combine Hageman with another 2nd round pick, then the value you could get would be very good for the Cowboys in the long run.

Imagine a draft where the Cowboys pick up Hageman in the bottom of the first round, then Bucannon and Martin in the 2nd round.

But barring a trade back, the Cowboys still need an upgrade at this position. Let’s face it. Nick Hayden tried hard last year, but was one of the worst starting defensive tackles in the NFL. The addition of McClain gives the Cowboys another journeyman. The Cowboys need a serious upgrade here, and either Sutton (who after his junior season projected as a 1st round pick) or Ego Ferguson (who was being projected as a potential 1st round pick in 2015) would really help the Cowboys solidify the interior of their defensive line.

RDE – Anthony Spencer

I really wanted to see Dallas re-sign Spencer to a small contract and they did just that, a one-year deal worth less than $4 million after all possible incentives.

Realistically, we’re probably looking at a rotation of Crawford and Selvie at RDE to start the season, but the best-case scenario for the Cowboys would be for Spencer to get healthy by September, and retake his starting position in October. That would also buy the Cowboys some time for Crawford to get healthy.

Achilles injuries are much harder to come back from than the ACL that Melton is recovering from. So, I really don’t know what to expect from Crawford. But Selvie played well last year, and with a stronger DT like Hageman, Sutton or Ferguson playing next to him, he will have an even better year in 2013 – unless Spencer surprises all of us and comes back as the Pro Bowl level player he was just two years ago.

Here is the draft that would fix the Cowboys defense in 2014:

  • 1st, 4th & 7th round picks traded to move up and get – DE Anthony Barr
  • 2nd round pick – FS Deion Bucannon
  • 3rd round pick – DT Will Sutton or DT Ego Ferguson
  • After the 3rd round, the Cowboys could focus on other positions.
  • 5th round pick – OG Anthony Steen or OG Trai Turner
  • Five 7th round picks – DE Aaron Lynch, DT Kerry Hyder, WR Jeff Janis, RB George Atkinson III, and OLB/DE James Gayle
  • Rookie Free Agent – RB Ben Malena

Engineer, writer and private NFL analyst, he began developing his own statistical analysis program in 1998 to measure and predict the performance of NFL teams. Scott is also a self-taught expert on the NFL salary CAP, analyzing how Cowboys contracts affect the team this year and in future seasons. Mr. Harris’ skill lies in digging inside the numbers to explain which statistical measurements matter, and which do not.

Mr. Harris developed his skill at writing for his college newspaper, and had his own politically oriented blog for several years. A passionate fan of the Cowboys, Scott uses his skill with numbers and writing to provide a unique viewpoint of the Cowboys and the NFL as a whole.

He is a native of the DFW metroplex and currently resides in Golden, Colorado designing environmental controls systems for data centers, high rise buildings, college campuses, and government bases.

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