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USATSI

It wasn't difficult to predict the defensive scheme the Dallas Cowboys would deploy at any given moment in 2019, or recent seasons prior, but that's set to change in 2020 and beyond. Well, that's actually putting it nicely, because the level of defensive conservatism routinely had all the excitement of a BINGO game at an assisted living facility, and without the free ice cream. As 2020 training camp rolls along in North Texas, however, the sheer quantity of excited comments from players as they adapt to a more creative and less predictable system in Year 1 under head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is enough to drive home the primary point of coming change, as if the impressive offseason haul hadn't already

They'll be forced to move forward without three-time All-Pro pass rusher Gerald McCoy -- who was released following season-ending surgery to repair a ruptured right quadriceps tendon -- but the roster is designed now to absorb such a loss and not miss a step. That's why, while McCoy's teammates admittedly miss him and his energy on the field, the Cowboys defensive front is seamlessly dominating at practice. This is precisely what McCarthy and Nolan had planned when they convinced the team's front office to shatter its longstanding and often stale approach to free agency and the NFL draft. In doing so, they now find themselves with a front that boasts the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Dontari Poe, Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith.

That's a total of nine Pro Bowl nods and four All-Pro awards, on a line that also boasts depth pieces like Tyrone Crawford, Antwaun Woods and rookies Neville Gallimore and Bradlee Anae -- among others like former second-round pick Trysten Hill. 

What's even more impressive is the fact Smith hasn't played a snap of football since 2015, and looks nothing of the sort. He's floored McCarthy and the team as a whole right out of the gate, and quarterback Dak Prescott, who's getting a healthy dose of Smith in his face at practice, is unequivocal in what the Pro Bowler brings to the table following his reinstatement to the league this past spring. 

"He's a man -- a monster," Prescott told media on Thursday. "Damn sure doesn't look like he hasn't played in five years. Doesn't play like it. Energy would never tell you that. 

"Very fortunate to have him on my team and not rushing me. He's going to make all of us better. He's a great player."

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Prescott is just as elated to have Griffen in the fold -- a late offseason addition who joined just ahead of the team's first padded practice on Monday. Having met long ago at Prescott's first Pro Bowl following his 2016 Rookie of the Year season, the two hit it off, and now get an opportunity to help lead the Cowboys this season. 

"I was able to get to know him pretty well within that Pro Bowl so that was fun," Prescott said of the team's newest All-Pro. "I was so excited when we were able to sign him and make that addition to our team [and] to our defense."

And circling back a bit to Smith, Nolan is over the moon to have him -- thanks to the lobbying of Smith's former and now current defensive line coach, Jim Tomsula

"First thing is when you see Aldon he's an awesome-size guy," said Nolan. "He's a big man, and he's impressive. But thus far, I like the way Aldon -- No. 1 -- interacts with the other players to be honest with you. He's a team player. 

"He's got a lot of personality. Like I said, I like the way he interacts with D-Law, with Tyrone Crawford, and with a number of guys. I see their chemistry, that's so important, not only on the defensive line, but in the defense, I like the way he adds to that group. So, that excites me. 

"Outside of that, he's a great player. He's got a lot of versatility as a big man. A lot of times you're just more entrenched with your hand in the dirt doing those things. But he's another guy that can stand up and move around."

Nolan went on to note how Smith played outside linebacker for Tomsula in San Francisco, and how he "moves very well" for his impressive length, declaring Smith "doesn't have a whole lot of limitations." That's fantastic news for a defensive line that initially had concerns surrounding how to replace Robert Quinn in 2020, having lost the 2019 team leader in sacks to the Chicago Bears in free agency. 

Needless to say, they've seemingly done OK in that regard, at least thus far. 

But for all of the justifiable hype surrounding the offseason acquisitions (and they're still hoping for good news on Randy Gregory soon), what's not lost in the mix is the air floating around Lawrence, who is primed for big season after what some viewed as a downturn because of a dip in sack production -- despite his other categories (e.g., QB knockdowns) being comparable to the year prior. It must be noted Lawrence also underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum last summer, which basically deleted his entire 2019 training camp. Again an active participant at camp, the addition of the aforementioned players, his health and a new hybrid scheme that will see him rush a good amount from a two-point stance truly do set the stage for what could be a special year for Lawrence.

He spent the offseason preparing to rush standing up to ready himself for what McCarthy and Nolan would require in camp and beyond, and it's paying off early. He's not shown any sort of difficulty in the adaptation, and McCarthy compares Lawrence's transition to that of a future Hall of Famer who McCarthy once had the pleasure of coaching.

"I've had a chance to watch just a couple of guys in my career go through that transition," said McCarthy to media in the first week of padded practice. "The first one that I think of right off the bat is Julius Peppers -- when you're primarily playing in a four-man front and really Julius was in the same defense, he played for [former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli] there in Chicago [at the turn of the last decade], and when he came up to Green Bay [in 2014]."

The intriguing aspect of Lawrence standing up is that it won't simply happen when the defense shifts from its base 4-3 to a 3-4 but, as evidenced in practice, how the Pro Bowler will also be seen peering over the backs of the opposing offensive line when the Cowboys have four defensive lineman on the field.

In other words, this is not simply a third-and-long novelty item. 

"The opportunity to particularly play in a two-point stance on first and second down, especially with someone like D-Law's experience and his instincts and awareness at the line of scrimmage," McCarthy noted. "It will give him more vision to play to the tendencies and mannerism of the offense."

That said, it's about adaptation to help Lawrence evolve as a more potent all-around pass rusher, and not to fracture his foundation.

"I think he's going to really like it," said McCarthy. "But still at the end of the day, if it's best suited for him to put his hand on the ground and in a pass rush situation, that's what we'll do. Just watching Julius go through it he liked it, he enjoyed it. It gave him a chance to really tap into his years of experience of playing with more vision, and it was primary more on first and second down because when it came down to hit it and get it in the pass rush. He would go through a three-point stance and we'll work through that with D-Law and I think he'll really benefit from this. "

For his part, Nolan agrees wholeheartedly with all of McCarthy's points, including not completely abandoning the technique that's made Lawrence one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.

"I will say [Lawrence's] primary role will probably be a three-point stance," said Nolan on Thursday. "That's what he's done very well and he'll continue to do that. But there are a few things that we do that will allow him to stand up, and I think it's to the advantage of an experienced player who understands formations, tendencies and things like that -- because standing up you can obviously see a lot more of the offense than you would with your hand in the dirt. So, there is a little bit of an advantage for some players who do that. 

"But there are times when it's everything to get off the ball as quickly as you can and rush the passer, and obviously D-Law is very good at that and he will continue to do those things. But like i said, I think standing up here and there for a few things gives him an opportunity to kind of survey what it looks like or what's around him or maybe a better feel for what they're going to do so he can attack it that much better. ... And a lot of our ends will do the same thing."

From on-the-fly scheme changes to edge rushers rotating between putting their hand(s) in the turf and standing up, it'll be all an opposing offense can do to figure out what's coming on any given play. And the creativity won't stop there, with the Cowboys having swapped roles for linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, moving them to WILL (weakside) and MIKE (middle), respectively. That's already begun to show itself in practice as a potentially great idea, with Smith becoming an early camp headliner and Vander Esch looking every bit the part of a defensive QB with every rep. 

Smith is flying around in practice as both an aide in blitz packages and coverage and, by all accounts, he looks as if he'll leave his 2019 downturn far in the rearview. The same goes for Vander Esch in reference to what might ultimately become a year of redemption in his return from neck surgery, making for one of the most dynamic LB duos yet again -- as they were in 2018 -- and further complicating things for opposing offensive coordinators. 

The Cowboys have flexibility front to back in their defense, and once they can figure out who'll play where in the secondary (along with the fact several of the defensive backs can flex), it could just be a matter of time before one of the most vanilla units in the league becomes anything but. It's been a rocky road for them to now, but potentially no more. 

That's the ... scoop ... folks.