The Dallas Cowboys will need to rely on the defense more than ever in 2018 and might have the talent and the players to carry the team. With the loss of wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten, the offense could take a step back, and struggle to score points. The Cowboys have invested in some high draft picks on the defensive side of the ball and that could finally start to pay dividends.
Dallas has a couple of the best defenders in the league in defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and linebacker Sean Lee. Lawrence signed the franchise tag after a year of bringing constant pressure off the edge to the tune of 14.5 sacks. Sean Lee, the quarterback of the defense, is one of the best in the game as his play diagnosis and sure tackling make the whole defense perform better.
The Cowboys know what they’re going to get with some of their solid veterans on defense, but it’s some young players that have a chance to add to the unit and help the Dallas defense become truly elite. These are five wild cards that are set up for more playing time and could make this defense one of the best in the league.
#1- Byron Jones (cornerback)
Jones was drafted to play cornerback in the first round, 27th overall, in the 2015 NFL draft. After playing well at cornerback as a rookie, he was switched to safety and has played there ever since. Secondary coach, Kris Richard, has moved Jones back to cornerback, which is his more natural position.
Jones is a true freak of an athlete, even when compared to other NFL cornerbacks. After an unforgettable combine where he set the World Record in the broad jump, he joined the likes of J.J.Watt, Calvin Johnson, and Lane Johnson as a rare athlete to ever test in the 99th percentile at their position. The word from training camp is that he’s fit right back in at cornerback and has been making plays on the ball almost daily.
#2- Chidobe Awuzie (cornerback)
Awuzie was drafted 60th overall in the 2017 draft. He too is an unbelievable athlete. His SPARQ score ( size vs speed, power, agility, reaction time, and quickness) was 137 putting him in the 97th percentile of NFL cornerbacks. With Jones and Awuzie, the Cowboys have two of the most athletically tested starting corners in the league.
Awuzie was hurt last season, but when he finally got into the starting lineup in week 13, he did more than hold his own. In the Cowboys last five games, he allowed only 6.9 yards per reception which was 5th best in the league. The talented second-year player has been making noise at training camp giving the receivers all they can handle.
#3- Jaylon Smith (linebacker)
During his time at NotreDame, Jaylon Smith was one of the most highly touted linebackers in years. He was considered a once in a generation type player. A devastating knee injury nearly ended his career, and many thought he may never play another down in the NFL. The Cowboys team physician, Dr. Daniel Cooper, performed the operation on Smith, and the Cowboys felt comfortable enough that he would eventually return to health and drafted him with the 34th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
After sitting out and rehabbing his rookie year, the linebacker returned last season. While still not being 100 percent and wearing a restrictive knee brace, Smith still put up 81 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and a sack. Now back to his pre-injury form, and playing next to Sean Lee and first-round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys could have one of the best linebacking corps in the league.
#4- Taco Charlton (defensive end)
Last year’s first-round draft pick, Taco Charlton comes into the season with high expectations and looking for that second-year breakout. He improved on his sack totals every year in college and has the talent to make a big jump bringing pressure opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence.
Taco didn’t play very many snaps to start the year but saw his playing time increase as he showed improvement. After only 5 tackles and zero sacks in the first seven games, he finished strong with 14 tackles and 3 sacks over the last 9. Defensive end is a position that is known to have a steep learning curve for rookies who often have a jump in sacks in year two.
J.J Watt jumped from 5.5 to 20.5, Khalil Mack went from 4 to 15, Vic Beasley from 4 to 15.5, and Chandler Jones from 6 to 11.5. These are just some defensive ends to see the increase in sacks in their second year. While Taco may not hit those kinds of numbers he has a good chance to more than double his 3.
#5- Randy Gregory (defensive end)
Gregory was made to rush the passer in the NFL. His measurables aren’t off the charts, but he tests similarly to some of the best defensive ends in football. At six foot five 235 pounds, he ran a 4.64 forty yard dash. Gregory has long arms and is ultra-explosive.
The last game Gregory played, he absolutely dominated the Eagles. He only sacked Carson Wentz once, but was constantly applying pressure and could not be held out of the backfield. If Gregory plays anywhere close to the way he played in that game, the Cowboys pass rush will be hard to defend.
These five players were all drafted high because of their ability and production. For a number of reasons, they haven’t been able to produce at an elite level in the NFL as of yet. Things are looking better as Jones is back at corner, Awuzie is healthy, Smith is back to full health, Taco is in year two, and Gregory has been reinstated. These five wild cards all have a clear path to more playing time and are poised for big seasons in 2018. If they perform up to their potential this Cowboys defense could be one of the best in the NFL.
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