Unlike one of Jerry Jones' favorite young linebackers not named Micah Parsons, he'd prefer you not put on sunglasses this offseason when assessing the Dallas Cowboys, and that's because he's waving around the Neuralyzer from Men In Black -- hoping to delete everyone's memory of what took place in 2020. It was then that the organization made the unwise decision to pull coordinator Mike Nolan out of hiatus to lead their defense into what became one of (and in some ways) the worst in franchise history, having expediently ejected him from the driver's seat in January to replace him with Dan Quinn.
With the bulk of free agency and the entirety of the 2021 NFL Draft now in the rearview and with things going swimmingly on the offensive front with the multi-year deal and , Quinn's plan to rebuild and rewire the Cowboys defense is quickly forming. In a span of only four months, the team has already shed some longstanding views on two key fronts: the lack of value placed both on the interior defensive front and at the safety position (at least in some part). The addition of Brent Urban, Carlos Watkins and rookie sixth-round pick Quinton Bohanna led to a jettison of starting nose tackle Antwaun Woods -- who had recently signed his restricted free agency tender only to be given his walking papers by Quinn -- and the signing of Damontae Kazee hopes to add potency alongside breakout safety Donovan Wilson and rookie sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu.
That's just the beginning of what Quinn is working to mold in Dallas, and having now seen just how short Jones' rope is in the Hall of Famer's old age, the former Legion of Boom leader knows he has to hit the ground running in North Texas. In some ways, he already has, both on the field and in how he's constructed his defensive staff.
But while some solutions have already shown themselves, others are more elusive.
The linebacker equation
2x + 1 + 2 (4) - 2 = y
Solve for y.
We could argue Order of Operations here and what number is the true result of that equation, and it would be similar to the conversation the Cowboys are facing as they work to figure out their own solution over the course of the next several months.
As alluded to above, Parsons is now in the building as the team's latest first-round pick -- his selection at No. 12 making him the highest-drafted LB in Dallas since ... well ... Leighton Vander Esch in 2018. And speaking of LVE, the decision by the Cowboys to not exercise his fifth-year option immediately thrusts him into a contract year in which he'll now compete directly with Parsons for the right to remain with the club in 2022 and beyond; but this fight isn't exclusive to the hunter of wolves. It also extends to Jaylon Smith, who's salary is guaranteed for 2021 but that doesn't preclude a potential trade before the mid-season deadline, sources tell CBS Sports, and certainly applies pressure for him if he's still on the roster in 2022 -- when he's set to hit the team's salary cap for a chunky sum of $11.8 million.
Making matters even more interesting is the addition Keanu Neal (who'll presumably do a good bit of work at linebacker) and that of fourth-round pick Jabril Cox, a pick that could easily be viewed out front as the steal of the entire Cowboys draft. Cox is a coverage machine with a nose for the ball, and if Parsons will primarily operate in the role of MIKE (middle linebacker), it sets up a potentially potent 1-2 punch that once belonged to Vander Esch and Smith.
"I'm just coordinating and being a dominant force," Parsons told media from rookie minicamp. "They wouldn't move me there if they didn't have a need a MIKE. MIKE linebacker -- you get a chance to force, to be a Rambo player. You can to matchup on running backs. You get a chance to play in the box.
"That is what I do best. You watch what I did in college. I was able to go sideline to sideline. I can go both ways.
"Always be around the ball. They know that is what I do best. I am excited to start there."
Toss in promising undrafted free agents Tyler Coyle (Purdue) and Anthony Hines III (Texas A&M) and it's clear Quinn isn't subscribing to any loyalties that involve players who aren't already franchise cornerstones -- e.g., DeMarcus Lawrence. Quiet as it's kept, there is also still an eye to be kept on developing talent like Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford, and with so much going on behind the two incumbent starters, the stage is set for one or both to be in a different uniform by this time next year. Parsons notes he and Smith spoke last season and he told the veteran to "tell the Cowboys to come get me" because "I'm trying to play next to you."
They did the former and, in doing so, ironically tied the latter to a lit fuse.
Familiar faces, new roles
Speaking of the linebacker room, hello there Mr. Edwards.
As first reported by CBS Sports in mid-December, George Edwards was a frontrunner to succeed Nolan as defensive coordinator prior to Quinn becoming available. Our follow-up report in January noted the hiring of Quinn was not a slight to Edwards, but instead hinted at a gentleman's agreement between the latter and the Cowboys -- one that would see him take on a greater role with the linebacker corps going forward after serving as only a senior defensive assistant in 2020. It appears this is now all coming to pass, with Edwards taking on a leading role in rookie minicamp after seeing Dallas honor the gentleman's agreement: on the field helping with Parsons, Cox and others. This can only be seen as great news for the Cowboys, who nearly lost Quinn to interest from the Chicago Bears this offseason, but instead were able to land Quinn while retaining someone who once developed talent in Dallas like Dexter Coakley.
He also lends a wealth of talent to the overall assistance of coordinating a defense from his time spent helping Mike Zimmer make the Minnesota Vikings a defensive force from 2014 through 2019, before joining the Cowboys in 2020 -- as seen below in the Vikings defensive rankings when Edwards was at the wheel.
|YEAR||POINTS PER GAME (AVERAGE)||NFL RANKING|
This does mean a likely shifting of roles at some level as it relates to Scott McCurley, the team's current linebackers coach who had the tall task of attempting to duplicate the success of Matt Eberflus. A favorite of head coach Mike McCarthy from their time together with the Green Bay Packers, McCurley was not a regime casualty in the installation of Quinn, but is also no longer mostly autonomous in molding the linebackers in Dallas. There's still value to be had in keeping McCurley around and so Dallas has, at least for now.
What happens next with Sean Lee could inevitably decide just how long that remains the case, however.
Lee is a team legend who could've mounted a Hall of Fame career if not for injuries, but his decision to retire in 2021 doesn't mean his time in North Texas is at its end. Not long after CBS Sports broke the news of the Cowboys hoping to add Lee to their coaching staff, Jerry Jones confirmed it in Lee's retirement press conference, with the former All-Pro noting he'd first like to take some time away from the game to acclimate to his next phase of life.
"That's definitely something I'm going to consider," said Lee. "But right now, it's time for me to step away. I need to get over [missing being a player] and then make a decision on the back end of that."
Once he's got his retirement legs beneath him, his feelings toward rejoining the Cowboys is mutual.
"I want to be involved in this organization," he added. "I know that for sure."
Lee already has a relationship with Parsons from their shared brotherhood as Nittany Lions turned Cowboys, and he could soon not only get his hands on the fellow former Penn State superstar, but also Cox and others in the young guard who could only benefit from the fiery competitiveness and alien football IQ that Lee brings to the table. Looking ahead a bit, if the LB corps in Dallas is ultimately coached by a combo of Edwards and Lee -- with Lee also infusing the teachings of Eberflus back into the mix -- the days of pointing fingers at coaching for inefficiency on the field would mostly be a thing of the past as it relates to the linebackers.
Take the corner ... back
No, this isn't an episode of The Wire, but there's a newcomer who might have some Omar Little in him.
Entering the NFL draft, it was no secret the Cowboys needed a second corner to compliment former second-round pick Trevon Diggs -- someone whose prowess and energy feel a lot like Marlo Stanfield. Having lost out on both Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn, they opted to trade with the Philadelphia Eagles and move down to select Parsons, following that up with a second-round grab of Kelvin Joseph; a mercurial personality who carries red flags but can inarguably cause destruction in coverage. Joseph is unforgiving in his style of play and while time will tell if he's truly ready for the professional ranks -- as he and the Cowboys both believe to be so -- but from a purely football standpoint, in between the lines, Joseph is an impressive complement for Diggs.
"When I sign[ed] my contract, it's going to be life-changing," said Joseph. "Just by once I got my name called and once I was going through the whole process, I was handling myself as a pro and getting ready for the next step. So I feel like I'm already a pro. I've been handling myself as a professional.
"It's just that the Cowboys gave me an opportunity to change the game, so this is what we're about to do, and I'm fitting to get with my brothers and we're going to go to work."
And as far as his rap career under the alias "Bossman Fat," it's now on ice.
"I just know my difference between my hobbies and my profession," he added. "Football is going to get me paid and it's going to change my family's life. Making music is just like a hobby, I'm not too worried about it right now but there will be some music coming one day, but right now it's just strictly business."
Cole Beasley would be proud.
Not quite done at the cornerback position in the draft, the Cowboys also doubled down on it when selecting Nahshon Wright in the third round, in yet another move that could only be viewed as a bang or bust pick. Wright was a detour from the team's big board, a player Quinn simply had to have, and so the Cowboys acquiesced -- having 11 picks in all to afford them the "luxury" of doing so. Initially side-eyed by future Hall of Famer cornerback Richard Sherman for labeling himself a "more athletic version" of the All-Pro, he's since spoken with Sherman and it's possible the two will begin doing some behind-the-scenes work to get the rookie where he wants to be in Year 1 and beyond.
"We've spoken," Wright said from rookie minicamp in Dallas. "I got the chance to speak with him. We kinda have a mutual respect. For me, I think it was just genuine confidence in myself and looking up to someone like that.
"He played under Dan Quinn. So now I have the opportunity to play under him and hopefully do the same things that Richard Sherman did. So, we spoke and we have a mutual respect. And he told me if I ever needed help I can reach to him."
This means Quinn now has his definitive CB1 and CB2, with a player he physically views as similar to Sherman behind them and a re-signed Jourdan Lewis controlling the nickel corner position and justifiably generating speculation on the future of Anthony Brown. That's a good foundation to build upon here, assuming all reach their potential as Diggs showed he can in a breakout rookie year. From there, it's about figuring out if Reggie Robinson will be moved back to cornerback in Year 2 after seeing his skills wasted in a failed attempt by Nolan to convert him to safety, along with scanning Maurice Canady for snaps after the veteran opted out in 2020.
The overall play at cornerback will also be dictated by what happens behind them at the safety position, and Quinn is hoping for better results in doing to incoming rookie Israel Mukuamu than what Nolan was able to achieve with Robinson.
Mukuamu was under the impression the Cowboys selected him as a cornerback, but he'll instead begin his career in Dallas as safety in rotation with Wilson and Kazee. That makes him the fourth safety selected in the sixth round by the Cowboys in the Will McClay era, and the others all eventually became major contributors -- i.e., Kavon Frazier (2016), Xavier Woods (2017) and now Wilson. That is a solid track record that implies McClay sees a longterm player at the position in Mukuamu, and in looking at his film ad the club's track record at the position when selecting on Day 3, it's tough to disagree.
So, at least at the moment, Quinn is doing his best Stringer Bell impression.
Whose line is it, anyway?
The swiftness in which Quinn and the Cowboys fired Woods would make Smokey the Bear blush.
You'll catch on to that line later, but for now it's all about reiterating just how much Quinn values stopping the run -- something that's long been missing in Dallas. Issuing a tender to Woods provided some draft insurance for the Cowboys, but once they plopped big-bodied behemoth Bohanna into the mix to add to Urban and (to a lesser degree) Carlos Watkins, they found no need to continue with Woods, a player who once impressively climbed from the ranks of camp body to starting nose tackle. But, without Woods and a retired Tyrone Crawford, there's new chemistry that must along the defensive front and it's gotta happen quickly. It must be noted that Neville Gallimore is on the upswing heading into Year 2 and Trysten Hill was making progress before suffering a torn ACL in 2020, so there is no suddenly no shortage of beefy interior talent to choose from, and that sets the stage for what should be a rabid training camp battle at 1-, 0- and 3-tech.
The same reindeer games apply to the edges, albeit in a different capacity, seeing as there are already two starters in Lawrence and Randy Gregory. This means the mission there is to figure out how third-round picks Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston fit in, and not long after signing Tarell Basham to the roster ( ). For while Urban's and Bohanna's roles on the interior will see them battle for what might be hefty playing time as early as September, Odighizuwa and Golston must be melded to an edge rotation that also houses Ron'Dell Carter and a team-favorite in veteran Dorance Armstrong.
Expect some flex for all of the young defensive linemen not named Bohanna, on a defense that will move to a three-man front at times, and Quinn's system should provide some sort of outlet for former fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae to finally crawl out of the doghouse. Anae could be used in the LEO role of Quinn's system and has a lot of potential, but couldn't break out under Nolan and now sees his road to playing time made more challenging by the Cowboys defensive draft class.
Quinn and the Joneses have thrown a lot of beef at their defensive front and the defense as a whole this offseason. And with OTAs up next and mandatory minicamp in June, it's time to fire up the grill.