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Mailbag: Predicting The Starting Defense?


If the season started this coming Sunday and every player was available, who is your starting 11 on defense? — WALTER DE BELL / TROY

Rob: For a base 4-3 defense, here's my starting lineup. Front four: DeMarcus Lawrence, Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Tyrone Crawford with Aldon Smith rotating in at defensive end. Linebackers: Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee. Cornerbacks: Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis with Anthony Brown taking the slot. Safeties: Xavier Woods and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

David: If everyone is healthy and available, I'd have a starting line of DeMarcus Lawrence, Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe and Tyrone Crawford. I'd rotate Aldon Smith into the action in pass rushing situations, to help him get his feet wet. I assume we're playing a nickel defense, so my two primary linebackers would be Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Xavier Woods would be my safeties. Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown would be manning the outside corner spots, and Jourdan Lewis would be handling the slot. Hopefully, Trevon Diggs can push for playing time – but if the season starts in just four days, I don't think that's very realistic. 

With the cancellation of preseason games will teams change how they practice? Without the ability to see how players react in "game" situations and against varied competition, how will they try to evaluate talent? — MICHAEL FIECHTER / AKRON, OH

Rob: Well, there are still collectively-bargained restrictions on the number of practices and the length of practice, in addition to certain safeguards on how teams practice. The Cowboys will have a required series of light practices before the pads come on in mid-August. Maybe Mike McCarthy can set up more competitive situations as an evaluation tool, but you're not going to see a 'preseason game within practice,' if that's what you're asking. I don't expect practice to be vastly different from any other year. This is just the reality of the pandemic. Teams will have to pick their rosters without a lot of on-field time. It's tough for less experienced players in particular.

David:It's one of the most pressing questions facing the league right now. Yes, it's undoubtedly going to change the way teams conduct business in the next four weeks. I think we're going to see clubs around the league lean on what they already know – trust the college tape for your big-time draft picks, and lean on guys who have done the job at the NFL level. That's not exactly fair for late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents, but fortunately the practice squad will be six spots larger than normal this season. I don't think many people will want to gamble on the unknown this year, which is unfortunate but understandable.

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