How the Cowboys can improve their run defense for the 2021 season.
Same question, new year: How can it be with the level of talent that Dallas employs on a yearly basis, they manage to consistently underachieve? They run out an offense loaded with young playmakers: Prescott, Elliot, Cooper, Lamb, and Gallup; and a defense with pieces to build around: Smith, Lawrence, Diggs, and Vander-Esch. Yet, they’ve had very little return for their investment in talent.
Injuries definitely had an effect in 2020. Who would have thought Prescott’s value would increase with injury? There are definitely questions surrounding the last couple of HCs: Garrett game-plans always seemed copy and pasted from the week prior and McCarthy, dating back to his final years in Green Bay, looks like the game has past him by.
However, there is one aspect that get overshadowed by the oozing talent, stagnant game-plans, and key injuries…the run defense. It was atrocious in 2020, ranking 31st in the league, as they gave up on average 158.8 yards per game.
Their inability to control the line of scrimmage has a major trickle-down effect on the rest of the team. If you can’t stop the run, that typically leads to manageable third downs, which opens up play-action passing, and the end result is an elite offense doing more watching than participating.
I think we’re all seeing the theme here, so let’s get down to it, let’s fix the Cowboy’s run defense and help Jerry win his first championship in nearly 30 years.
1. Sign: Keanu Neal (Safety)Embed from Getty Images
This makes a lot of sense on a few different levels, the first being that the Cowboys have had a glaring need at safety the last couple of years. They flirted heavily with Earl Thomas going into 2019, but luckily dodged a bullet on that one (pun intended). Keanu Neal obviously doesn’t bring the same sort of impact as a player of Thomas’ caliber, but he’s a physical player that doesn’t mind getting mixed up in the run game with over 100 tackles in each full season.
The second level is that Dan Quinn was brought in as the new DC and he was the guy that draft Neal 17th overall back in 2016 and then exercised his 5th year option even after two consecutive season-ending injuries (2018 & 2019). That is the value Quinn places on Neal in his system and I’m sure he’ll make McCarthy and Jerry aware of the potential and, immediate impact that he can provide.
To dive more into the X’s and O’s, Quinn employs a lot of Cover 1 & Cover 3 zone coverages. This places a lot of pressure on the strong safeties, Neal in this case, to be physical enough to play up at the line for Cover 1 (typically on a tight end), but fluid enough in space to break down on tackles when playing the deep right third of the field in a Cover 3.
The third level is that Dallas has some wiggle room with the cap, about $18M according to Over the Cap, but a good chunk of that will be dedicated to locking in Prescott to a long-term deal.
This is where Neal’s recent injury history might hurt his market, but help Dallas land an upgrade in the secondary. Teams will be leery about investing in a young, physical player that has already had two major non-contact injuries. Couple that with the cap dropping to anywhere between $175-$185M in 2020, any long-term investments will be made in players with less financial risk.
Potential Deal: 3 years-$14.5M ($6M guaranteed)
2. Sign: Adam Butler (Interior Defensive Line)
I think the collective answer I will get is “Who?”, but take this from a Patriots fan, he is the type of player that doesn’t get much recognition, but explodes in a more player-friendly scheme. Think Chandler Jones in 2016, he was good in New England, but never approached the type of player he became in Arizona. Now, I’m not saying that Butler is going to rip off 10+ sacks, but he could be that unsung interior presence that opened things up for the guys in Seattle and Atlanta (think more Brandon Mebane than Grady Jarrett).
Butler has shown flashes to collapse the interior of the pocket with his unique blend of short space quickness, length, and strength. He is enough of a threat up the middle to lift some of the pressure and attention away from DeMarcus Lawrence. However, his value will come more in the form of freeing things up for his second-level teammates (i.e. Jaylon Smith) to make more impact plays in the running game rather than just cleaning up backs who got to the next level.
Butler isn’t a fix-all type player, but he is a very valuable role player when surrounded with the right talent. He had 8 sacks in 2019 for a NE two-gap system that minimizes penetration by defensive lineman. The best part of him, he’ll be undervalued because he is coming out of New England’s system, so he can be had for relatively cheap compared to what his impact can be.
Deal: 2 years-$11M ($4M guaranteed)
3. Trade: Stephon Gilmore (Cornerback)
We broached this topic when we dove into possible destinations in a Gilmore trade, and I still think this makes a lot of sense, even with Quinn being more of a zone guy. His defenses are still predicated on corners being up at the line of scrimmage pressing receivers and being active tacklers in the run game. Gilmore excels at both. He would also provide the Cowboys the lockdown corner they were sorely missing in 2020, allowing coverages to be rolled to younger players like Trevon Diggs or Anthony Brown.
The catch is that Gilmore will be expecting a new deal wherever he goes. He’s a former defensive player of the year and will want to be paid as such. Do the Cowboys want to invest this much into a 31-year old corner, especially with heavy investments already eating up a lot of their cap? They can get creative with the contract, signing him to extension off his current contract (which New England will be eating $8 of the $16M). This would allow them to keep his cap hit low over the next two seasons (2021 & 2022), until the league cap eventually bounces back in 2023 and thus Gilmore’s financial impact will still be minimized.
Who do they part with in return? A young though oft-injured Leighton Vander Esch. He has struggled to stay on the field and may greatly benefit from a change in scenery and system. To sacrifice a player with a long and frequent injury history, who will have to be paid in the coming years, for a lockdown cover corner to step in and fill arguable the biggest need you have…it’s worth it.
Cowboy Nation is desperate for a super bowl and with the amount of talent and resources poured into this version of the 90’s dynasty, Jerry and McCarthy shouldn’t be shy away when it comes to adding elite talent.
Although known for his impact on the opponent’s passing game, adding Gilmore greatly impacts the run defense. He is the type of player that can come in and completely change the feel and look of a defense. He can alter how the defense can use the remaining ten players on the field, allowing for a great presence at the line of scrimmage.
Dallas does not have that matchup guy, and they’re going to have to get through Green Bay and Tampa to end a 30-year drought. Both of those teams employee huge mismatches in Davante Adams and Mike Evans, but also two great QBs in Rodgers and Brady.
Trade: Vander-Esch for Gilmore. 2-year $36M extension
4. Sign: JJ Watt (Defensive Line)Embed from Getty Images
If you’re trying to upgrade a run defense and don’t mention JJ Watt as an option, well, then you’ve failed. If Dallas makes any moves, this would be the one that could fix their run defense on its own. Watt is a complete game-wrecker, he dominates anywhere on the line, he breaks through double-teams, and elevates the play of the entire unit. I’m selling out if I’m Dallas to get him. The allure is there, Dallas already has championship-level talent (if they retain Dak), he wouldn’t have to move too far, and his legacy would be cemented if he brought a Lombardi back to Jerry.
The problem will be the price tag. Would he be willing to get creative with his contract, such as taking a low base salary and spreading a signing bonus over a long-term deal? Would he be willing to take a Revis-type deal where it’s a 1-year deal disguised in a 2-year contract? If so, then I think Dallas is a real contender to land his services, there’s just too much upside here not to be banging down this door.
I don’t think I need to go into too much detail or do much convincing as to how Watt would transform the run defense, his 3 defensive player of the year awards speak for themselves.
Deal: 2 year-$40M deal ($20M guaranteed)
5. Draft: Dylan Moses (Linebacker)
This is a copy-cat league and the Bucs just shined with two athletic, sideline to sideline linebackers in Devin White and Lavonte David. The Cowboys have ½ of that with Jaylon Smith, who has proven that he can be special when he isn’t being mauled by guys twice his size. So, assuming that the Cowboys find SOME way to address the beef along the line, Dallas would be wise to bring in Moses with the 44th pick.
He was a stud at Alabama and only a major knee injury is preventing him from going in the 1st round. Much was the case with Smith coming out of Notre Dame, Dallas would be wise to take a top-10 talent with a 2nd round pick.
He’s big enough at 6’3 and 240 pounds to stand-up against tight ends in coverage and after being in Saban’s system, he knows how shed blocks in the running game.
His instincts and football IQ has allowed him to play all over the defense, from off-the line at weakside and strong side to on-line as a rusher. He’s a chess piece and won’t hesitate when he recognizes the play, he gets downhill fast. The best part is that he comes at a huge discount for his upside for the next four years. The Cowboys defense was at its best in recent memory (2018) when it had the ability to line up two linebackers that could clean up anything that got past the defensive line.