Robert Quinn and Trysten Hill headline Dallas’ front four additions
Throughout this offseason, the Dallas Cowboys’ offense has gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so. The offense is led by a superstar running back who has also been in the news for off-field reasons once again. The team’s quarterback and No. 1 wide receiver are each eligible for contract extensions. Their future Hall-of-Famer at tight end un-retired after just one year away from the game and is now back for a 16th season. The Cowboys’ offensive line is widely considered one of the best in all of football, and perhaps the best member of that line is returning from a long-term illness that kept him out for all of last season. The team swapped out its slot receiver, drafted two running backs and a guard, and oh yeah, promoted a 30-year-old former backup quarterback with just one season of coaching experience to offensive coordinator, and he’s reportedly making a whole lot of aesthetic changes to the offense.
But though Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Jason Witten, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Connor Williams, Randall Cobb, Tony Pollard, and Kellen Moore will do a whole lot to determine what level of success the Cowboys experience in 2019, it’s easy to forget that it was actually the team’s defense that was the better unit last year, for the first time in a good, long while. The Cowboys ranked seventh in yards allowed, sixth in points allowed, and ninth in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Led by the sparkling young linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, superstar edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence, and newly-crowned stud press corner Byron Jones, the Dallas defense took a major step forward in 2018.
To get where they want to go in 2019, that defense will not only have to maintain, but get even better. And the key to their doing so is the defensive line. Last season, Lawrence finished with 10.5 sacks, 22 quarterback hits, 63 pressures, and 15 tackles for loss. He was not just the Cowboys’ best edge defender, but one of the best in the whole league — a two-way force who has to be accounted for and located on every single snap. Dallas got by last season by rotating several players through the other spots along the line.
Tyrone Crawford, the team’s defensive captain and most versatile lineman, was on the field for 67 percent of snaps and surprise interior force Antwaun Woods was there for 63 percent; but Maliek Collins, Randy Gregory, Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, and Daniel Ross all played between 250 and 500 snaps. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli likes to rotate guys through to keep them fresh and able to chase after the ball, and that strategy worked well enough with this group. But on the whole, they were far better against the run (fifth in DVOA, third in Adjusted Line Yards allowed) than they were getting after quarterbacks (16th in DVOA, 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate, 35.3 percent pressure rate was slightly below average).