On Thursday we considered what the Dallas Cowboys' 2020 offense would look like if we only had the players currently under contract. Now we'll look at the defense, helping us determine where the Cowboys' biggest priorities will be this offseason.
Overall the defense is in a better position than the other side of the ball. Even with CB Byron Jones hitting free agency, you still have your star defensive lineman in DeMarcus Lawrence and a great duo of linebackers in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. The nucleus is still solid.
But still, that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of work to be done. Even the defensive line position, despite retaining Lawrence, exemplifies that fact.
2020 Defensive Ends:
DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Joe Jackson,
Dorance Armstrong, Jalen Jelks
2020 Defensive Tackles:
Tyrone Crawford, Trysten Hill, Daniel Wise,
I want to look at the defensive line as one unit because of Crawford's versatility. You really could factor him into either role in 2020, as you could some of the free agents such as Kerry Hyder, Christian Covington, or even Michael Bennett if Dallas brings them back.
I know that I'm taking a huge leap of faith by putting Randy Gregory on this list, but it certainly feel like things are falling in place for his return. Even if the new Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn't go through, the NFL's stance on marijuana use is clearly shifting.
If Josh Gordon could get reinstated last year, there's no reason that the league wouldn't give Gregory another chance.
That would go a long way to helping Dallas weather the potential loss of Robert Quinn in free agency. The Cowboys are also hoping for development from Dorance Armstrong and Joe Jackson to step into larger roles.
If Gregory does come back then the defensive end position isn't in that bad of shape. It's defensive tackle where Dallas has bigger issues.
It's worth nothing that Antwaun Woods is only an exclusive rights free agent, so he is as good as back in 2020. Even if his late-season arrest in 2019 for drugs possession results in a suspension it shouldn't be for more than a few games.
While Tyrone Crawford has long been seen as a potential salary cap casualty, it sounds like the Cowboys want to work out a salary reduction with him. Crawford's ability to play inside or out on the line is still valuable, as is his veteran leadership.
Dallas needs a fallback plan in case Trysten Hill still isn't ready for a large role. The second-round pick in 2019 should be contributing in 2020 but he didn't show great signs of that as a rookie. Hopefully he takes a big step forward.
At the bare minimum, keeping Antwaun Woods and getting Randy Gregory back would allow the Cowboys to field a functional defensive line in 2020. But unless young players like Hill, Armstrong, and Jackson are going to really take off next season, Dallas will still need to do some work to make up for all of their departing veterans.
Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Luke Gifford,
Even with Vander Esch and Smith returning as the core of the group, Dallas' linebacker position is still hurting. Even proven depth option, and even the third starter in the base defense, is a free agent in 2020.
The Cowboys appear committed to retaining Sean Lee for at least one more year. He would help fill out the first-team lineup while also providing insurance against injuries for either Leighton or Jaylon.
But until that happens, the only other linebackers under contract are Gifford and Covington. Neither has real-game experience, though the team is high on Gifford's potential and might trust him in at least a primary reserve role in 2020.
Still, the depth chart is depleted with the potential exists of Joe Thomas, Justin March, and others. And if the Cowboys are worried about the long-term risks with Vander Esch's neck issues, they could be pushed to making a major investment in linebacker this offseason.
I don't mean they'd spend another first-round pick there. But if the right prospect was there in the second round; a player who could join the starters in the 4-3 while also being a primary backup for the next few years? It could happen.
If the Cowboys don't bring Sean Lee or Joe Thomas back then I could also see that player coming in free agency. There are often solid veteran options available at linebacker and Dallas should be able to wait out the first wave and find a bargain among the leftovers.
Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Donovan Olumba,
D.J. White, Chris Westry, Deante Burton
Free agency will not be kind to the CB position. Byron Jones is the big issue, of course, but along with him are veterans Anthony Brown and C.J. Goodwin. Even though Goodwin's loss will be felt more on special teams, he's provided some experienced depth for two seasons.
We can argue all day about “good vs. great” with Byron Jones, but the bottom line is that he's the Cowboys' best corner and would be a major loss. While a starting duo of Awuzie and Lewis isn't the end of the world, especially with both playing in contract years, it's still more of a liability than strength.
Awuzie is the real problem. He can make some nice plays at times but seems lost in other cases. He hasn't developed as much as you'd like from a former second-round pick, but hopefully that changes in his fourth year.
With the nickel defense now the most-often used look in the modern NFL, the third CB is a vital position. That is where the Cowboys would really be hurting in 2020 without some help.
Donovan Olumba has been a preseason darling the last two years but hasn't been able to find a consistent role. Even if Dallas does re-sign Jones or add another CB for the top three, Olumba has a solid shot at making the roster as the fourth or fifth corner.
Other prospects such as Burton, and Westry, and White are just bodies at this point. You never know what they might do come July and August, but counting on any of them for 2020 right now would be silly.
Whether it's paying big for Byron Jones or finding a replacement in the draft or free agency, the Cowboys will likely be making one big move this offseason at cornerback. They just don't have the resources in place to do otherwise.
Xavier Woods, Donovan Wilson
Some fans would be just fine with a starting duo of Woods and Wilson. But even if you are, obviously the Cowboys will need to add some depth behind them with all other safeties about to become free agents.
Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, and Darian Thompson will all be free in 2020. Most are ready to move on from Heath as a starter, and rightly so, but assuming Wilson would be an upgrade or even just an equal player is based on hope rather than facts.
Heath and Thompson both provide experience and versatility and would be great depth options if nothing else. Even if the Cowboys are going to spend a high pick or spend some money on a new starter, I would like to see one of them brought back as a key reserve.
What happens in a few weeks with free agency will determine the level of draft priority that safety gets. It's not a position that Dallas has typically made big investments in, but we have new voices at the table in Mike McCarthy and Mike Nolan.
If the needs at WR, CB, and other positions take up the Cowboys' attention, we could see Dallas run with just Woods and Wilson at safety and fill up the spaces behind them. That wouldn't have been surprising under the last regime.
But no matter where they fall on the 2020 depth chart, an additional two or three safeties will be needed for Dallas to complete their roster.