The offseason practices are in the rearview mirror as the Cowboys are heading towards training camp, which begins on July 24 in Oxnard, Calif.
That's usually the place where many of the questions regarding this team start to get answered.
The staff writers at DallasCowboys.com – Rob Phillips, David Helman, Nick Eatman and Bryan Broaddus – are attempting to answer 20 pressing questions as the team gets ready for camp and the 2017 season.
Today, we continue the series discussing how the defense can build on a solid 2016 performance after considerable roster turnover in the offseason.
3) 20 Questions: With Personnel Changes, Can This Defense Be Better in 2017?
Broaddus: The Cowboys in 2016 were statically ranked mid-pack when it came to total defense (14th). They were best in the league against the run and top five in points allowed. Rod Marinelli has always said that he doesn't care about the yards that his defense allows; the number of points are the most important. Where his defense did struggle was defending the pass so it was no surprise that the majority of their turnover was in the secondary where age, injury and consistent play was a problem. By adding Nolan Carroll and four quality draft picks plus a healthy Orlando Scandrick and an improving Anthony Brown, this defense should improve -- especially when it comes to their secondary play.
Phillips:I think the pass rush has a real chance to get better -- and it's been better in terms of sacks the last two years -- if DeMarcus Lawrence and Charles Tapper can stay healthy, if Taco Charlton contributes early and if Damontre Moore builds on a good offseason. If those things happen, then suddenly Rod Marinelli has a solid rotation of five or six edge rushers, not to mention what Maliek Collins adds at the three technique. The secondary's best strength last year was limiting big plays. A younger, more athletic group could mean allowing more big plays but producing more takeaways, thus becoming more dynamic. We'll just have to see.
Helman:I have a really good feeling about the long-term future of this unit, but I doubt they'll be better than they were last year. Even with the influx of young talent, you're asking a lot for this group to get on the same page that quickly. Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox all played together for at least four years. Even if they weren't spectacular, they had a solid understanding of the scheme and how to play together to their strengths. There are obviously holdovers from previous years. But between the addition of Nolan Carroll and several rookies, you're asking a lot of new faces to come together in a short amount of time. On top of that, the pass rush might be improved from last year – but it's hard to imagine it'll see a significant boost. It's possible that DeMarcus Lawrence could have a career year or that Taco Charlton could have rare production for a rookie defensive end, but I lean more toward the skeptical side. Like I said, there are a lot of young players on this defense worth feeling optimistic about. But it's hard for me to imagine them being better than a middle-of-the-pack group in 2017.
Eatman: Can they be better? Sure they can. But there are a handful of things that really need to fall into place. To me, it has to start with a pass rush. Someone has to emerge into a pass-rusher that we can't really see right now. Can Lawrence emerge into the player he was two years ago? Can Irving come back from suspension and take his game to a new level? Can Taco rise to the occasion as a rookie? Can anyone else have a George Selvie-like season where he comes out of nowhere? I don't think anyone is picky when it comes to who it is. Just someone has to step up. If that happens, the defense has a chance. I like Heath's ability to be a good starter. I think they will find a trio of corners out of that group. They have to figure out a way to get turnovers and sacks. If they do that, yes they can be a better unit.