The Cowboys made a lot of progress in the 2022 season on the strength of their defense. While their offense struggled in various parts of the season, it was the Dallas defense that quickly caught up and allowed them to go 12–5 and avoid the five game absence of their franchise signal-caller.
After retaining defensive coordinator Dan Quinn at the start of the winter, the Cowboys set out to keep the defensive unit intact. With various pieces set to hit free agency, doing so will be no small feat.
Dallas played things cautiously. Rather than locking down players for free agency upfront, the Cowboys let things play out. After allowing his top linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch, and his playmaking safety, Donovan Wilson, to test the market, he signed them both to modestly priced multi-year deals.
They filled their glaring hole at cornerback by adding former All-Pro Stephen Gilmore and they re-signed defenseman Johnathan Hankins to plug the middle of their line.
Not only did they retain players and patch holes, but they also appeared to have fully defended themselves five months before the start of the 2023 season. While a lot can change between now and before Week 1, on paper, things look largely set.
By retaining Hankins, the Cowboys seem to have their starting four spots in place. Day Marcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons definitely own the top roles between Hankins and Osa Odighizuwa.
Parsons is the superstar of the bunch and a lock to see as many pictures as he can handle. Often listed as a linebacker, Parsons is first and foremost a running back. He logged 859 snaps on the defensive line in 2022 and is unlikely to change dramatically in 2023.
Lawrence is the veteran of the bunch with a well-rounded Pro Bowl game and the ability to move inside on passing downs. Odighizuwa is an emerging talent at defensive tackle. Named Dallas’ most improved player by PFF, he’s a far cry from the top three-technique tackle in the pecking order.
Hankins was the last shoe to leave in free agency but recently agreed to a one-year deal to stay in Dallas. Neither Neville Gallimore nor Quinton Bohana appear to be viable challengers to Hankins at the one-tech position, making all four starting spots appear stable.
Depending on the quality of play and level of experience on this defensive line unit, even a top draft investment would struggle to overtake one of these players on the depth chart this season. The rotation is still up in the air but on paper, the initial foursome looks set.
The Cowboys had two huge holes staring them in the face this offseason: 1) at cornerback opposite Trayvon Diggs 2) at their third safety spot who logs the starter snaps.
Both were free agents beginning in 2022 and it was unclear if either would return. As noted above, Wilson was retained to resume his role as Quinn’s playmaking safety and Gilmore was acquired from the Colts to replace Anthony Brown on the border.
Both the potholes have been successfully filled.
Manning at the second cornerback position is 2022 rookie standout, Daron Bland. The Cowboys are fully invested in seeing both of their young cornerbacks succeed and they need to feel pretty good about their starting cornerback position in 2023.
At safety, Wilson was joined by Malik Hooker at free safety and Jaron Kearse at strong safety. Both players have unique roles on the Dallas defense and are essentially locks to start.
Like many teams, the Cowboys rely more heavily on their nickel defense than the traditional 4-3 base defense. With the prevailing use of 11 personnel, Dallas preferred to mix additional receivers with cornerbacks, resulting in only two starting linebacker positions on Quinn’s defense.
The third safety discussed earlier also takes snaps away from the linebacker core, further reducing the number of snaps played by linebackers in Dallas.
Leighton Vander Esch returns to Dallas as the primary linebacker with second-year player Damon Clarke the clear favorite for the second spot. The physical toll of the position is significant and there are specialist roles in some personnel groups up for grabs but the top two roles are very clearly defined.
Historically speaking, defenses tend to be volatile from year to year. Unlike offenses that generally maintain performance, defensive performances can turn on at times. The Cowboys stated early in the off-season that they wanted to buck this trend and build a team around their standout defense.
Arguably, maintaining and improving a defensive personnel with proven veterans is a great way to achieve that lofty goal.
By essentially filling all the starting defensive roles in March, they are in no way dependent on the draft to save their defense and keep their strategy alive. They can still draft defensive players (as they should) but barring injury, they don’t need a rookie to fill a key starting role in 2023.
It’s rare to see this kind of consistency of a high-quality unit so early in the offseason, but that’s where the Cowboys find themselves. Again, a lot can change over the next five months, but the way things look today, the starting Dallas defense is on course to not only replicate its stellar 2022 performance, but possibly improve upon it.