In the aftermath of the NFL draft, the consensus is that the Cowboys’ offense is headed for the stratosphere. As for the defense, could it be bound for the … 3-4?
I realize that early last week Head Coach Mike McCarthy attempted to head off confusion on this point, stating that the Cowboys would play a 4-3 defense in 2020, but that the club was always looking for options and alternatives, different wrinkles to throw at the opposition. At this point, though, if new players work out the way the team hopes, I think it’s at least a 50-50 bet the Cowboys will be a base 3-4 team by 2021.
A final hint came in the fifth round of the draft — and I’m not suggesting a team is smart to change its defense due to the arrival of a third-day pick. Even though Utah defensive end Bradlee Anae technically lined up in a 4-3 in the Pac-12’s best defense, he made a lot of plays from a wide stand-up position. Analysts believe his size makes him well suited for a 3-4 outside linebacker role in the NFL.
He’s just the latest, of course. If the Cowboys hit the big home run they are seeking in resurrecting Aldon Smith’s career after a four-year absence, Smith did his major damage as a 3-4 linebacker in the 49ers defense. Of course, Randy Moss was a teammate so it’s been a minute since Smith ruled the league (it was the 2012 season when he had 19 ½ sacks). The Cowboys will see what he can do as Robert Quinn’s replacement at right end, but it won’t be a surprise if his success accelerates the push for a defensive shift.
Dontari Poe was a first-round pick and nose tackle for Kansas City most of his career. He switched to the 4-3 in Atlanta but returned to the nose in the 3-4 last year in Carolina. And the big one, of course, is that coordinator Mike Nolan has had his units run the 3-4 for much of his career (but not its entirety), and the 49ers were a 3-4 team in his four years as a head coach.
Philosophy change or not, what the Cowboys really need to do is create more confusion and turnovers, and those things are tied together. It’s not like the Cowboys defense was awful last year. In an 8-8 season, the club’s big losses to top teams — New England, New Orleans and the final meeting with Philadelphia — came by scores of 12-10, 13-9 and 17-9. In those defeats, Dallas’ No. 1-ranked total offense was a bigger culprit than the No. 9-ranked total defense.
So the real question is have they found a way to improve that unit. It’s possible that Smith and Anae and possibly Randy Gregory fill the hole Quinn left when he went to Chicago, but this isn’t a collective experience. Yes, defensive linemen rotate, but one needs to stand out and be the guy you want on the field most of the time on third downs.
The club still has a bigger question there than it does at corner where Trevon Diggs of Alabama was rated the best at man-to-man coverage in the entire draft. If he makes a few more mistakes than Byron Jones did at that spot, Diggs also is likely to make more big plays than Jones ever provided before cashing the big check with Miami this offseason.
The biggest obstacle to defensive success is simply the coaches implementing and players learning an all new system. How and when that can start to be achieved remains a complete unknown. Will that make potentially great draft classes less valuable in the early weeks of the season compared to the norm? No one has that answer.
All we know is that the Cowboys’ first draft conducted from a yacht received rave reviews from coast to coast. Dallas has been praised for many of its recent drafts without turning that into sustained division championships and playoff glory. That’s where the new staff and a new approach, one that will likely slide more into the 3-4 style Bill Parcells brought here 17 years ago, take full responsibility.
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