As the Dallas Cowboys began their search for their next defensive coordinator in the wake of firing Mike Nolan, I was pretty vocal that Dan Quinn was not the direction I would have gone at the position. However, now that it’s done, I can see how this move could be a good thing for the Dallas Cowboys, especially if it changes how they see the defensive tackle and safety positions.
For years, the Cowboys attempted to get by with low-risk, low-cost options at defensive tackle and safety. Instead, placing a higher premium at linebacker, cornerback, and defensive end. Cornerback and defensive end are certainly more important positions, but they’ve spent a pick in the first three rounds on a cornerback four times since 2015. Xavier Woods and Donovan Wilson were taken in the later rounds of the draft.
Now, you can’t spend at every position, but at some point, the Cowboys need to find a way to improve in the middle of their defense. If you don’t have enough talent at defensive tackle, we've seen how that can hurt your linebacker play.
Though the Cowboys have invested second and third-round draft picks in the previous two drafts at defensive tackle, they’re still not placing much of a premium on a player who can stop the run at the 1-technique defensive tackle position. Elite defensive tackle play matters. It’s hard to find, but it’s worth the search.
During his time in Atlanta, the Falcons were able to unearth Grady Jarrett in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Then the Falcons signed him to a four-year contract extension in 2019. Even if they didn’t originally invest a high draft pick in Grady Jarrett, they saw the value that his play brought to their team and made sure to give him a significant contract after the 2018 season.
Dan Quinn’s success in the NFL has been predicated on having good safety play over the years. Dating back to his time as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, Quinn had All-Pro and Pro Bowl players in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. With the Falcons, he’s gotten strong play out of 2021 free agent safety Keanu Neal – hint, hint.
In 2017, a year removed from the Super Bowl, the Falcons had their best defensive performance as they finished in the top ten in yards and scoring. They were beaten in the divisional round by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. That year, they got Pro Bowl performances out of Jarrett and Neal.
Though a lot of the way the Cowboys value the safety and defensive tackle positions was attributed to former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, it seems that Will McClay and Stephen Jones bought into that line of thinking as well. When opportunities arose to draft a safety or trade for a safety, they opted to go in another direction.
They’ve placed a low priority on run-stopping defensive tackles for years now, and it just doesn’t work anymore. They’ve made it by with players that were aging or afterthoughts in the draft. And though they finally used a second-round pick on Trysten Hill and then a third-round pick on Neville Gallimore, they’ve still had underwhelming production at the position from a run-stopping ability.
The Cowboys have deficiencies up the middle of their defense with limited run-stopping ability at defensive tackle. This affects the ability of their linebackers to make plays. Their safeties have been inconsistent over the years as well. In 2020, they finally got some playmaking out of a safety in the form of Donovan Wilson.
The Cowboys need to find answers at 1-technique defensive tackle, and they need to find a safety that they can pair with Donovan Wilson in the back end. Preferably a guy who is a legit free safety type, which would allow Wilson to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
As we head into the offseason and begin looking at the 2021 NFL Draft, there will be many debates about ideas of best player available or need or scheme fit or talent, and all of those things should be factored into the equation. Talent is always the most important factor, but scheme fit certainly provides important information. Though the Cowboys don’t need to allow the coaching staff to make draft-day decisions, they need to consider what the coaches are looking for. Hopefully, with Dan Quinn’s success with good safety and defensive tackle play, perhaps the front office will place a stronger emphasis on investing in making those areas a position of strength.