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How Easily Could Cowboys Convert to 3-4 Defense in 2020?

Massive changes are underway on the ' in 2020. With a new and defensive coordinator now in place, could a big change be coming to the defensive scheme? WIll Dallas convert to a this year, and how easily can that happen given the current roster?

Mike Nolan has been named as the new coordinator this year and his primary background in the NFL has been using the 3-4 scheme. In case you're unfamiliar, this refers to the base formation of personnel among the defensive linemen and linebackers.

In the 4-3 scheme, which Dallas has employed since 2013, there are four defensive linemen and three linebackers in the front seven. The 3-4 flips those numbers; three linemen and four linebackers.

Dallas used the 3-4 defense from 2003-2012. It was initially installed by and continued by . However, after two years of Rob Ryan's work, the Cowboys chose to bring in and Rod Marinelli to switch back to the traditional 4-3 scheme.

Mike Nolan has worked with both schemes, having run a during his time with the from 2012-2014. He has spent the last three years as the linebackers coach for the New Orleans Saints, who also use a 4-3 scheme.

Still, Nolan's primarily considered a 3-4 guy. So if new Dallas Head Coach is bringing him in to lead a scheme change, how quickly can the Cowboys make that switch with their current players?

A significant factor in this is who is actually under contract for 2020, which a big issue for the Cowboys across the board this . The massive list of could also mean a perfect environment for changing schemes.

Under Contract Free Agents
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
DE Dorance Armstrong
DE Joe Jackson
DE Randy Gregory (SUSP)
DE Jalen Jelks
DL Tyrone Crawford
DL Daniel Wise
DT Trysten Hill
DT Maliek Collins
DT Daniel Ross (RFA)
LB Justin March
LB Ray-Ray Armstrong

The first player you have to talk about is DeMarcus Lawrence, who just got a massive new contract last year. Can Tank make the conversion to being an outside in a 3-4 scheme?

No, Lawrence isn't as versatile as a Von Miller or . He's probably not the guy you want occasionally dropping back into coverage. But he could easily be the strong-side 3-4 LB much like Antony Spencer was for the Cowboys. He would still get to attack the right tackles and play a key role in , where DeMarcus currently excels.

An interesting figure here is Jaylon Smith. Would he play inside linebacker or move to that weak side OLB? Jaylon has legit pass-rushing skills but are they good enough to make that a more heavy portion of his workload?

Centerpiece Leighton Vander Esch works in any scheme and would be great in an inside linebacker role in the 3-4. The question would be who plays beside him; do you re-sign either Sean Lee or Joe Thomas for that spot? Or is that where you prefer to play Jaylon Smith and using someone different as a pass rusher?

The linebackers are actually the easier transition. It's the defensive line where you'd have some big moves to make, and an especially interesting decision with veteran Tyrone Crawford.

Nobody would've expected Crawford to return in 2020 given his reduced role and increasing contract. Tyrone is set to count $9.1 million against the cap and Dallas can save $8 million of that by cutting him.

Tyrone Crawford
Dallas Cowboys DL Tyrone Crawford

But if the Cowboys wind up moving to a 3-4 scheme then Crawford may suddenly have increased value. He started in the league in 2012 when Dallas still ran that defense and was brought in originally as a 3-4 .

However, Dallas could very well take that $8 million in cap space and sign two or even three rotation players. That might be the better value in the end.

The switch would definitely benefit some guys and hurt others. For example, smallish DE Dorance Armstrong could be a nice candidate for converting to a 3-4 OLB. But would Robert Quinn or Michael Bennett, who were great additions in 2019, now be worth bringing back?

Christian Covington's experience as a 3-4 DE in Houston would make him a smart player to re-sign. But on the other hand, changing schemes would make it even less likely that Dallas would bring back Maliek Collins or Antwaun Woods.

And of course, what about Randy Gregory? If he's ready to finally make his NFL return, the athletic pass rusher might be a nice fit as an edge rusher. But Randy's return timetable, if one even exists, is a mystery nobody can solve right now.

There would clearly be a lot of work to do. Thankfully, even after they re-sign key free agents like QB Dak Prescott, WR , and CB Byron Jones, Dallas should have all the cap space and draft picks necessary to retool the defense.

Clearly, some new faces would have to be brought in. A true would be a must and probably either a pass rusher or an inside linebacker depending on where they use Jaylon. But thanks to foundation pieces like Smith, Lawrence, and Vander Esch the task is far from impossible.

Even if the Cowboys ultimately stick to the 4-3 defense there are still plenty of moves needed with all of these free agents. We'll find out soon just how drastic the changes could be.

Jess Haynie
Jess Haynie
Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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A couple quick comments. Firstly, Robert Quinn was a great addition. Michael Bennett not even close to a “great” addition. Next, Antwuan Woods is the closest thing that we have to a true nose tackle. He’s strong, thick, compact and would at minimum be a good back up nose tackle. As for Jaylon Smith he and LVE would HAVE TO BE your inside LBs. Smith is a good blitzer but I don’t believe that he could give us 12 to 15 sacks per season as a OLB in a 3-4 Defense.
I could see D Law as a strongside LB as you said, but would we get ultimate production from him with him at that position? We would need far too many new players to switch to a 3-4. At least this season anyway.
Guys like Joe Jackson, if he develops, may benefit from the 3-4 scheme and be able to be a DE as he’s a big, strong, stout guy. Daniel Wise played DT at Kansas and he may also be able to play DE un the 3-4. I think keeping Cristian Covington would also be a must and a good jumping off point for a conversion.
As I said though, I just don’t see the parts there at the moment. We’d have to use this and next year’s draft and Free Agency just to aquire the type of players needed for the shift.

Gary Allen

Stay with a 4-3 and switch every now and then


I agree. Stick to the 4-3 and switch up everyone now an again with small doses of a 3-4 look/scheme.


Stay with the 4-3 but go back to Landry’s Flex defense which is 4-3, 3-4 and 46. We have the playbook from Landry use it.

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