5 defensive prospects at each position for Cowboys to choose from
In only two seasons, Dan Quinn has taken what was a historically bad defense and turned it into one of the top units in football. Now the strength of the team, Jerry Jones and Will McClay know their Dallas Cowboys need to improve opposite side of the ball in the draft to go where they want. Still, the defense has a need for fortification, at the least, needing depth at linebacker and upgrades to defensive tackle.
Gazing towards the future, Dallas may have just paid Donovan Wilson, but the DB room has several players on expiring contracts. The newly acquired corner, the All-Pro vet careening to his second contract, two of the three starting safeties and the returning starting slot corner. Stephon Gilmore, Trevon Diggs, Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker and Jordan Lewis are heading into ball-out, contract years.
On the defensive line Dorance Armstrong is on the last year of his deal and Dante Fowler only signed for one season.
So yes, the Cowboys need offensive ammunition, but ignoring the defense’s need for reinforcements wouldn’t be a smart strategy. Don’t be surprised if the draft falls a certain way, the Cowboys gave Dan Quinn gifts early, often, or both. Here are the top five defensive prospects at each position.
Will Anderson Jr.
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 253 Class: Junior
The best DE in the class this year isn’t a bendy burner around the edge. This one doesn’t regularly beat offensive tackles for sacks with a speed rush. Will Anderson, Jr. plays a style more like Demarcus Lawrence, setting a great edge in the run game while having the size and tools to be a great pass rusher once more technique is absorbed.
Height: 6-foot-2 Weight: 238 Class: Senior
Don’t let the size of Smith mislead. He is a great run defender who has no issue taking on blocks, shedding them or setting an edge, and then taking ball carriers to the ground. He has an excellent first step, can bend the corner well and will add sacks in bunches wherever he lands. The only questions revolve around collegiate production and whether he’s built to last entire seaons.
Height: 6-foot-6 Weight: 271 Class: Senior (RS)
Wilson has the chance to be the best player from this draft class. He brings an elite frame to the NFL level; not only in height and weight, but he know hows to leverage his length in both the run and pass-rush games. Already a terrific production guy, as he grows into his frame, Wilson could become an unstoppable force.
Will McDonald IV
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 239 Class: Senior (RS)
McDonald is the type of specialist who used to go in the third round. He does not hold up in the run game and that limits the snaps he’ll see to some extent, but this is a passing league now and on throwing downs he’s an unholstered weapon. McDonald IV has an elite get off to augment his length.
Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 268 Class: Junior
Murphy has a lot of tools a coach would covet. He has size, length, strength, plays with excellent effort, and has a few pass rush moves too. He has a quick first step but is inconsistent. Murphy could be a steal for a team, but he will need a coach to help put it all together. If he works on his pass rush plan and builds up his body in the weight room, he could be a special playmaker.
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 314 Class: Junior
Carter is by far the best on-the-field prospect in this draft. He can absolutely ruin the game plan of an imposing team if coordinators don’t allocate help. An elite penetrating DT is incredibly hard to find. If it wasn’t for his off the field issues Carter would be the first defender taken in this draft.
Height: 6-foot-1 Weight: 281 Class: Junior (RS)
Kancey has the most unfair comp of all time with Aaron Donald. Being an undersized defensive tackle playing for Pittsburgh, the comparison couldn’t be avoided, but Kancey isn’t that level of prospect on tape. Not being possibly the greatest DT of all time does not mean he won’t be a productive player. Kancey will use his speed, agility, and leverage to make plays in the backfield of opposing offenses.
Height: 6-foot-1 Weight: 282 Class: Senior
The wildcard at the defensive tackle position, Adetomiwa Adebawore was a college defensive end with the size to move inside and give offensive guards fits with burst quickness. If he takes to the move inside and can translate ability to production, he could end up causing the most disruption of all the defensive tackles in this draft class.
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 323 Class: Junior (RS)
While Smith has abilities that could translate into pass-rush productivity, Smith is a space eater who maintains his gap even against a double team. Jonathan Hankins has shown the Cowboys how important that position is and Smith is the young version of Hankins to build a run defense around.
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 309 Class: Senior
Possibly the best true one-technique in the draft, Benton is hard to move at the line, and that skill shouldn’t be taken for granted, but he is not great in any pass rushing scenario, though the linebackers should be freed up to do some work in the backfield behind Benton.
Height: 6-foot-2 Weight: 235 Class: Junior
Throwing Simpson in the middle to take on blocks and bring down running backs lessoned his impact last season for the Clemson Tigers. He is fast, he hits hard, and has unique ability in coverage. If he goes to a system where he is allowed to run sideline to sideline, hit ball carriers hard when he gets there, and play in zone coverages, he could be a star in the league.
Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 235 Class: Junior
Sanders is more of a weapon than just a straight up linebacker. He needs to find a defensive coordinator that will use him as a designated pass rusher that plays traditional linebacker at times but will blitz often and even slide to edge in passing situations. He isn’t dynamic enough to just play as an edge rusher, but to maximize his value, he should be deployed from there at times as well.
Height: 6-foot-5 Weight: 249 Class: Senior
Jack Campbell is the linebacker from the last generation of linebackers. He hits a hole, takes on a block, sheds it, and brings down the ball carrier. A true all-around middle linebacker, Campbell would ideally end up on a team that has some big boys taking on blocks in front of him that allow him to shutdown opposing teams run games.
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 229 Class: Senior
DeMarvion Overshown is the new style of linebacker that fits going against the pass happy offenses of the league now. He is a former safety who moves well and has an understanding of coverages. Overshown has enough pass rush ability that some teams might shift him to edge in the future. Athleticism to cover, an excellent tackle radius, and pass rush ability makes Overshown a possible steal in the draft if he can be developed and deployed correctly by a defensive coordinator.
Height: 6-foot-1 Weight: 246 Class: Junior
Noah Sewell is a middle linebacker prospect that is going to need more work to be great at the next level. He has the size, and is excellent at going forward, taking on blocks, and making tackles. He needs to work on seeing and reacting quicker though because he doesn’t have the reactive athleticism for football in 2023. If he is going forward, he is a top 50 pick, but sideline to sideline or changing direction, he is a day three selection.
Joey Porter Jr.
Height: 6-foot-2 Weight: 193 Class: Junior (RS)
Joey Porter Jr. could end up being the biggest difference maker on defense from this draft. He has the size, athleticism, and length to be a real problem for receivers in the NFL. He is an excellent press corner in man coverage to start, but could develop into a lock down guy in the correct system with the right coaching like a Dan Quinn and Al Harris.
Height: 5-foot-11 Weight: 181 Class: Senior
Devon Witherspoon plays a style of football like he is 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds. While he is an excellent cover guy, that has the versatility to play outside or in the slot, where he is very special is in the run game. Witherspoon plays like a linebacker, he stands up blockers, sheds, and tackles ball carriers. A complete corner prospect that will do it all in the NFL level.
Height: 6-foot-1 Weight: 197 Class: Junior
Christian Gonzalez will likely be the first cornerback drafted because he is a rare athlete at his size. A guy at 6-foot-1, almost 200 pounds, that runs under 4.4 in the 40, can jump over 41 inches, and has a broad jump over 11 feet as well is just not normal. Add to that how fluid he moves, and how smart he is in coverage, and he is one of the safest bets in the draft.
DJ Turner II
Height: 5-foot-11 Weight: 178 Class: Junior (RS)
Physical limitations are the only reason DJ Turner II isn’t considered a top pick in this draft. He is possibly the best athlete of any prospect available. He ran a 4.26 in the 40 with a 1.47 ten-yard split and could have the best instincts in coverage as well. If Turner wasn’t under 6-foot and 180 pounds, with only 30-inch arms, he would be in consideration for the top corner in the draft.
Height: 6-foot Weight: 197 Class: Junior (RS)
Deonte Banks is the complete opposite of DJ Turner. He has taken himself from a day two corner prospect from his tape at Maryland, where he had a lot of issues with awareness in coverage, to a possible first round pick due to his frame, incredible combine numbers and interviews. If a team takes Banks that early, it is because he is an excellent ball of clay that can run and jump better than most corners available and has the size coordinators covet to play outside in the NFL.
Height: 5-foot-11 Weight: 190 Class: Junior
The safety class going into the draft is underwhelming. Brian Branch is the top guy, but it is possible he becomes a slot corner for the team that drafts him. As a safety, he is a Tyrann Mathieu style hybrid that will play as much man coverage in the slot as he will play in the deep third coverage or split safety coverage. He is fast enough and smart enough to be great in any of those styles though.
Height: 6-foot-2 Weight: 198 Class: Junior
Antonio Johnson is the new school safety that Dallas fans know very well. He can play the same role as Donovan Wilson who can play in the box to help the rush defense, blitz, and cover tight ends. He isn’t going to cover the top receivers in the slot but shouldn’t be a liability versus most guys. The next great hybrid, safety-linebacker, could be Johnson.
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 221 Class: Senior(RS)
In his two years starting at Sacramento State Marte Mapu had 141 tackles with 12 for a loss, 20 pass deflections, and six interceptions. He isn’t a single high safety that can run sideline to sideline, but he can play the hybrid big nickel spot and bring production against the run and in coverage against tight ends.
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 209 Class: Senior
Another hybrid safety, JL Skinner will thrive in big nickel, as a cover style linebacker, but unlike some safety prospects, he has the ability and athleticism to play occasionally in over-the-top zones or even in coverage in the slot. A jack of all trades, but a master of none might be seen as a negative but for defensive coordinators nowadays, it allows disguised coverages. Which defender is going to blitz? Who will play over the top in zone? Is the tight end getting a man coverage look? Making a QB answers these questions pre-snap is important, and Skinner allows a coordinator to mix up his looks.
Christopher Smith II
Height: 5-foot-11 Weight: 192 Class: Senior
The old school, Ed Reed type, deep zone free safety is hard to find in the draft anymore. Christopher Smith II is one of those guys. He flies around, taking excellent angles and attacking the ball at the catch point. Over the last two seasons Smith II had 15 pass deflections and six interceptions. He is smaller and doesn’t have ideal length, but in the right system could become a defensive playmaker.
You can find Mike Crum on Twitter @cdpiglet or at Youtube on the Across the Cowboys Podcast.