Youth movement for Cowboys on defense

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Two seasons ago, the Dallas Cowboys fielded one of the worst defenses in team history. While they were getting run over on the ground, the passing game was busy getting torched, allowing 34 scores through the air. Something had to be done.

The first step was the team ridding themselves of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and bringing in Dan Quinn to run the D. It took just one year for rapid improvements for the Cowboys’ defense under Quinn. The biggest change was forcing turnovers. Dallas has 34 takeaways under Quinn’s tutelage, an increase of 11 from the previous season.

Looking forward to the upcoming season and there hasn’t been much turnover in personnel on the defense. In is veteran pass rusher Dante Fowler, out is Randy Gregory. The rest of the defense has remained relatively the same, with only the 2022 draft class bringing help. It’s unlikely the defense will cause the same amount of turnovers they forced last season, but their key to improving could come from a group that has shifted towards a youth movement in the last two years.

The Cowboys will field a young, fast defense that has playmakers at all three levels. It begins with star linebacker and the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, and has the potential to be one of the better defenses in the league.

Defensive line

Oct 3, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive end Chauncey Golston (59) sacks Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) in the third quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys might not have a star, aside from two-time Pro Bowler DeMarcus Lawrence, on the defensive line, but they do have loads of potential playmakers. Lawrence is the elder statesman on the defense, and at just 30 years old, he’s the oldest significant contributor- not just on the defensive line, but across the entire unit. Nearly everyone else comes in at 28 years old or younger; only cornerback C.J. Goodwin is over 30 years of age.

Lawrence has been injured over the last few years, but when he’s on the field, he’s still an effective player. There aren’t many better two-way defensive ends in the game, and Lawrence is the leader in the locker room. If he can stay healthy, there’s plenty left in the tank for a good season.

The rest of the group has star potential, beginning with third-year defensive tackle Neville Gallimore. In his second season, Gallimore was ready to take the leap and had worked himself into a starting DT spot until an elbow injury in the preseason cost him most of the schedule.

Now healthy, the 25-year old Gallimore might be poised to become one of the better young defensive tackles in the league. Gallimore has the ability to push the pocket as a pass rusher. He had 1.5 sacks in just five games last season and three tackles for a loss. If he picks up where he left off last season, Gallimore is firmly entrenched as a starter on the inside and is ready to take his game to the next level.

The rest of the defensive line oozes potential. Second-year DTs Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston are just 23 and 24 years old, respectively, and both made plays as rookies in 2021. Golston has bulked up and is moving inside, while Odighizuwa looks to build on a solid first season.

Odighizuwa had two sacks and six tackles for a loss as a rookie and came out of the gate playing well early. However, as the year progressed, Odighizuwa slowed down, as playing a larger role than expected caught up to the rookie. More is expected in year two and if Odighizuwa can sustain his play for a full year, he could make a huge impact for the defense.

Golston’s move inside could mean better results for him as well. Although he had modest success as a rookie, a full offseason to bulk up will help his play inside, where his speed and arm length can give offensive linemen trouble. At just 24 years old, Golston may have found a position to make him more effective with the Cowboys.

The 2019 second-round pick Trysten Hill is just 24 years old, and although he hasn’t had the type of career the team had hoped, he’s still young enough to break out this year. If Hill can show the type of play that made him attractive to the Cowboys, he’ll have a chance to earn a larger role.

The Cowboys also have their young run-stuffers from the last two drafts, Quinton Bohanna and John Ridgeway. Both players are 23 years old, and if either can become a force at stopping the run, the Cowboys will be happy.

On the edge, two more young DLs can make their presence felt. Even though he’s been in the NFL for four years, Dorance Armstrong is just 25 years old. Armstrong had a career year under Quinn, totaling five sacks in just 13 games. His game gets better and the Cowboys continue to be believers in Armstrong. If Armstrong’s development grows again this season, Dallas could have an underrated pass rusher who is about to break out.

Rookie Sam Williams is another part of the DE puzzle and is just 23 years old as well. There are high hopes for Williams, but the learning curve for a pass rusher, especially a second-round one, is steep. The Cowboys and Quinn worked out Williams before the draft and liked what they saw, so they’ll be counting on him without Gregory around.

None of these current players are over 25 years of age. Dallas does have some veteran players to guide the young defensive line, but youth is definitely served in the Cowboys’ trenches. Even if they have to rely on Fowler, he will be just 28 years old during the season.

Linebacker

Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) is sacked by Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons (11) during an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Mark Tenally)

The Cowboys don’t have a ton of depth at LB, but what they do have is youth. Leighton Vander Esch is the oldest guy at the position at just 26 years old, but the defense won’t be counting on him as they have in previous seasons.

After a brilliant start to his career, Vander Esch hasn’t found his All-Pro form since his rookie season, but he’s a good player, who’s got the capability to be great. If his health is good, Vander Esch is still a significant talent for the defense.

All the other top options are young and athletic. Parsons had a magnificent rookie season and just turned 23. Parsons had 13 sacks, 20 TFL and three forced fumbles, all while moving around the field at different positions. There is no reason to believe that Parsons will do anything but continue to get better, and he’s on track to be one of the best defensive players in the game.

The Cowboys aren’t inclined to keep Parsons confined to just one position, which should keep him as one of most dangerous defensive weapons in the league, and his best is still coming.

To pair with Parsons and Vander Esch, the Cowboys have fellow second-year LB Jabril Cox, who missed half of his rookie season with a knee injury. His return helps the LB position, especially in coverage. Cox has the speed and athleticism to be one of the better coverage linebackers in the league. At just 24 years old, if Cox can get back to his normal self, few teams will have a tandem as athletic as Parsons and Cox, who are both in just their second seasons.

Dallas doesn’t have much depth, but the rest of the LB group is young, and all are under 27 years old. Luke Gifford will be 27 when the season begins, and rookie Devin Harper is 24 years old.

Rookie Damone Clark is unlikely to see the field this season, but if he does manage to play, he’ll be just 22 years old. When he does eventually return to the field, a trio of Parsons, Cox, and Clark will make for one of the youngest LB units in the league.

 

Secondary

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs (7) warms up before the start of an NFL football game against the Las Vegas Raiders in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

In the secondary, the Cowboys are a little bit longer in the tooth due to some veterans, but the future of the group remains young. At cornerback, the Cowboys are led by All Pro Trevon Diggs, who will be just 25 years old during the season.

Diggs is coming off one of the best years by a CB in team history, picking off 11 passes, which led the NFL. He’s going into his third season and should continue to get better. Diggs has been the best corner for each of his two seasons in a Cowboys uniform and at his young age, Diggs leads a young CB group.

Behind Diggs are a couple of “older” corners. Anthony Brown, who has improved throughout his career, and slot man Jourdan Lewis. Brown had a personal-best three interceptions last season, and will be 29 years old in December, while Lewis will be 27 in August. Both are solid players who contribute and haven’t shown signs of slowing down.

Younger backups are second-year CBs Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright. Joseph is still just 21 years old and was in line to take a starting CB job, but his legal trouble could slow his progression. If he somehow is allowed to play this year, Joseph would be young help at corner.

Wright was a projection when drafted, but he’s got the size the team covets, and at a young age, if Wright improves in his second year, the Cowboys will have a solid secondary.

At safety is where the majority of the age is on the defense. They aren’t old by any stretch, but they have more experience than most positions on the Cowboys.

The three biggest contributors at safety are Jayron Kearse (28), Malik Hooker (26), and Donovan Wilson (27). All are in their prime, and Kearse is coming off a career season where he played his best football, both near the line of scrimmage and in coverage.

Quinn found the right fit for Kearse, who responded to an expanded role, and Hooker played some of his best football as well. Hooker has a chance to live up to the potential of a first-round draft pick if he can stay healthy.

Wilson is coming off a rough season, but a return to health could mean this is the best group of safeties the Cowboys have seen in a long time.

Dallas also has three young safeties that will be fighting for playing time, all are 23 or younger heading into the season. Israel Mukuamu stuck around as a late round pick that year, but didn’t play in a game.

Last year’s undrafted rookie Tyler Coyle made the roster and played in two game for the Cowboys, but didn’t make a significant contribution. This year, Markquese Bell arrives as an intriguing undrafted free agent who has some buzz behind him.

These are three young safeties who are fighting for a place on the Cowboys’ roster for the upcoming season.

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