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The Cowboys need more talent on defense to support coaching change

New coaches and different schemes will serve their purpose but the Dallas Cowboys will need better players to make big improvements on defense.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith (54) returns a Washington Football Team's Alex Smith interception for a long gain as Leighton Vander Esch (55) provides a block in the second half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

To put it nicely, the Dallas Cowboys struggled on defense during the 2020 season. The defensive shortcomings were the reason defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, along with a few of his assistants on that side of the ball, were shown the door after just one season into Mike McCarthy’s tenure as head coach.

Out with the old, in with the new. Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn arrives to run the defense and he’s brought a few assistants from his coaching tree with him. Joe Whitt – who spent time with Quinn in Atlanta – was added as the passing game coordinator and Aden Durde has been named the defensive line coach, replacing Jim Tomsula after one year.

The revamped defensive staff still hasn’t been fully filled out, but those are the coaches who have been hired so far. If you’re looking at Quinn, and what he did with the Falcons defense, you might be scratching your head as to why he’d bring in assistants that were part of defenses that weren’t very good. During his tenure in Atlanta – although not as the DC – Quinn’s units never ranked higher than ninth in the league.

That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence for a team that sported one of the worst defenses in team history. Quinn’s work as a defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks speaks for itself but the Dallas defense needs more than just better coaching to improve moving forward. 

Good coaching helps, but having better players and top talent will help more.

Currently, the Cowboys don’t have enough quality players on defense. Going up and down the positional depth chart on the defensive side of the ball, there are only a handful of guys that seem equipped to be shaped by Quinn. 

Along the defensive line, ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are pieces to build on. At defensive tackle, 2019 second-round selection Trysten Hill showed promise and rookie Neville Gallimore out of Oklahoma had some good moments, but more talent is needed upfront.

The linebacker corps is in flux. Jaylon Smith led the team in tackles, but he didn’t have the kind of impact that the team needed and expected, and third-year man Leighton Vander Esch struggled with injuries. Help is needed to bolster the group at LB and without it, no new scheme is going to address the deficiencies.

The secondary is an area where Quinn had a group that excelled in Seattle but he needs time and players to improve at the same spot with the Cowboys. The Legion of Boom had three All-Pro players in their secondary under Quinn but he doesn’t have that kind of talent in Dallas yet.

The best two players in the Cowboys’ secondary are cornerback Trevon Diggs, who just completed a roller-coaster rookie season, and safety Donovan Wilson, who had a breakout campaign in his sophomore year. Both Diggs and Wilson have work to do, but they’re the best of the bunch right now. 

Even if the young players can continue to improve under Quinn, the defense will still need to add additional pieces at virtually every spot. Nevertheless, rookie Diggs impressed as the season wore on and there’s reason to be optimistic.

Fellow corner Anthon Brown was re-signed last offseason and is a capable corner, but the secondary is on the verge of losing CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis to free agency, as well as Xavier Woods at safety. There doesn’t need to be a complete overhaul, but there should be an infusion of skill on the backend of the defense if Dallas wants to compete.

Dan Quinn might’ve been the best defensive coordinator on the market this offseason and he’s shown that he can lead a defense to a Super Bowl victory. However, if the Cowboys don’t have an influx of talent at all three levels, the hire might not make much of a difference. Quinn might be able to scheme up some improvement, but if he’s going to make a distinction, the Cowboys need to help him by adding better players.

Ultimately, Dallas needs to mesh their strong hire at defensive coordinator with more gifted athletes, or it won’t matter how good Quinn is. There is still work to do.

Do you think the Cowboys will be able to bolster the talent level of their defense during the offseason? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.