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Nick Harris

Five Key Position Battles for Cowboys Defense


FRISCO, Texas — Rookie mini-camp is in the rearview and OTAs are underway at The Star in Frisco as the complete picture around the Dallas Cowboys roster ahead of training camp begins to form. With key veteran pieces and draft picks both contributing to the new faces around the building, there is a lot of intrigue at key positions on both sides of the ball going into the summer.

On the defensive side, specifically, Dan Quinn has reloaded the weapons he had in 2022 with some new artillery at all three levels of the NFL's No. 13 defense in total yards allowed from a year ago.

However, with players from last year's defense departing and fresh faces entering, there is still a healthy amount of uncertainty with how certain position groups will shake out. Here are the five position battles to keep a close eye on as the season approaches.

Linebacker: With the departure of Anthony Barr, a hole is left in the second level for a variety of young players to compete for in 2023. Entering OTAs, Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark are the only linebackers on the roster that had significant playing time last season, leaving an opening for either Devin Harper, DeMarvion Overshown, Jabril Cox or Malik Jefferson to pick up a potential starting role this upcoming season. With Micah Parsons' snap count being mainly dominated by his defensive end presence (80.5-percent at defensive end in 2022), a reliable force in the second level will be necessary for when he's attacking the backfield.

Defensive tackle: Adding a reliable run-stopper in Mazi Smith to plug the middle was possibly the biggest addition to the defense this offseason, but some uncertainty still exists with the personnel around the first-round pick. It's tough to imagine a world where two of Jonathan Hankins, Neville Gallimore and Quinton Bohanna are left on the roster after the preseason. That being said, there is ample playing time sitting on the table with the departures of Carlos Watkins and Trysten Hill. There are possibilities that exist with Chauncey Golston or rookie Viliami Fehoko Jr. picking up responsibilities in the interior defensive line along with Mazi Smith, or possibly Osa Odighizuwa picking up additional playing time after his breakout campaign last year.

Cornerback: Adding Stephon Gilmore to the secondary will provide reliability to the boundary opposite of Trevon Diggs, and after DaRon Bland's breakout campaign in 2022, there is a clear top three in the cornerback group. Bland served as an instinctual ballhawk in the secondary in 2022 and can hone in on his nickel ability going forward with that reliability on the boundaries, but who backs him up and plays on the opposite side on four and five-wide sets remains a question mark along with who can play a key role in the depth on the boundary as well behind Gilmore and Diggs. Nahshon Wright and especially Kelvin Joseph face a pivotal training camp and preseason to make their presence felt as a reliability on the boundary while Jourdan Lewis will have to continue to prove his value at nickel as well, particularly coming off of a major injury. Moving up in the sixth-round to grab Eric Scott Jr. in the draft also screams at me when looking at the cornerback depth, as he shapes up to look like a player that can compete for legitimate playing time as a rookie to push a player that's been in the building either down the depth chart or off the roster.

EDGE: The edge position going into 2023 is possibly in the healthiest state it has been in decades for the Cowboys given how much talent there is in the group along with the availability that each main contributor has shown throughout their respective careers. It's more than safe to call Micah Parsons the leader of this group with DeMarcus Lawrence close behind as the reliable veteran on the opposite side. The emergence of Dorance Armstrong in 2022 provided even more backfield presence as the season went on, and an opportunity still awaits for either Sam Williams, Dante Fowler Jr. or the three-man undrafted free agent trio of Isaiah Land, Tyrus Wheat and Durrell Johnson to make a similar impact in 2023. Safe money would most likely reside in the corner of Sam Williams, who showed flashes of his athleticism and violence during his rookie season and is only getting better with the more experience he gains in the league.

Safety: The defensive backfield group made huge strides in 2022 as the three-headed monster of Donovan Wilson, Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse was a big reason why the Cowboys were eighth in the league in total passing yards allowed. Letting Kearse operate in open space with Wilson and Hooker providing even more of a presence in the box than what they were already used to allowed the trio to play to its strengths as the season went on. While there won't be a ton of questions with that group, the depth behind them has some question marks. The quartet group of Markquese Bell, Tyler Coyle, Juanyeh Thomas and Israel Mukuamu each have limited-to-no experience, and probably only three can make the final roster after the preseason. Mukuamu's versatility and Bell's potential give them the best chance to secure a spot, but Coyle and Thomas will need to show their value either in the secondary or on special teams in order to secure not being the odd man out.

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