FRISCO, Texas – So the Cowboys have just now started their offseason conditioning program this week, getting the majority of the team back together here at The Star for workouts.
Obviously, the NFL Draft will occur next week and although the Cowboys don’t have a first-round pick, there will be some additions that look to figure into the team’s plans for 2019.
However, getting a starter this year - on either side of the ball – doesn’t seem to be a likely scenario. Then again, Dak Prescott was taken in the fourth round of 2016 and he started every game and won the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.
But as for right now, let’s take a closer look how the lineup will look, with the projected starters on both sides.
Today, let’s focus on the defensive starters, with some key reserves.
LDE – DeMarcus Lawrence – Obviously, D-Law wouldn’t be ready to play at this very moment, considering he had shoulder surgery last week. But he will make every effort to make the Week 1 opener against the Giants. The two-time Pro Bowler is currently the highest-paid player on the Cowboys’ roster but that might not be the case when the season starts.
DT – Antwaun Woods – At the 1 technique, Woods came out of nowhere to have a productive season for the Cowboys in 2018. Like Lawrence, he also had surgery on a torn labrum, but his was performed in January, making him ready for the start of camp.
DT – Maliek Collins – It’s a contract year for Collins, who is certainly overshadowed by a handful of others that need new deals. Still, Collins has been a good player when healthy and when he’s playing at the 3-technique, his natural position.
RDE – Robert Quinn – One of the newcomers on this defense, Quinn brings not only experience but some proven production. He had a 19-sack season in 2013 and has yet to have a season of less than 4.5 sacks in his career. Playing opposite of Lawrence could be quite a tandem of pass-rushers.
MLB – Jaylon Smith – If Smith makes any improvement this next year, it’s hard to think he won’t end the season as a Pro Bowler. He’s one of the defensive leaders and the entire group seems to feed off his energy.
WLB – Leighton Vander Esch – Just imagine what kind of rookie year LVE would’ve had with a full 16-game slate. When he took over as a starter, Vander Esch not only improved his production but the defense and the entire team got better as well. The sky is the limit for him and look for an even better second season in 2019.
SLB – Joe Thomas – This is one position that seems a little up for grabs. The Cowboys lost Damien Wilson to free agency and Thomas would figure to be the next in line right now. He played more on the weak side last year when Sean Lee was injured at camp. But as a veteran player who can do many things, Thomas would probably get the nod right now. Don’t be surprised if Chris Covington can compete for the spot and Sean Lee might even factor into the position.
CB – Byron Jones – An All-Pro and Pro Bowl player this past year, Jones is one of the five players the Cowboys will probably try to re-sign to a long-term contract. But after just one season back at corner, Jones might have to prove himself a little more before a big payday. He didn’t have a great end to the season and he will need to improve on the turnover department. Jones is the only defensive back in Cowboys history to make the Pro Bowl without having a single interception that season.
CB – Chido Awuzie – Even though he was a second-round pick back in 2017, Awuzie is sometimes the forgotten man. That isn’t too bad for a cornerback. He was good in coverage and his tackling last year. Awuzie got targeted more than Jones, but didn’t give up a ton of plays. He might be ready for a breakout season.
FS – Xavier Woods – The Cowboys have seemingly tried to upgrade from Woods for two years and it hasn’t happened. It appears the team has more confidence in him than the fan base. But that didn’t change this offseason when the Cowboys again avoided signing big-name safeties. Woods will have to compete for the job again but should have more than a leg up on the competition.
SS – Jeff Heath – The Cowboys did sign George Iloka in free agency and have brought in a few rookie safeties for visits. Heath won’t be handed a starting position again but the coaching staff will make sure he has a chance to win it back. However, if Heath is not the starter in 2019, that should mean he’ll have a larger role on special teams, something that has been his specialty since he came into the league back in 2013.
This might be the most telling part of this defense. The names that aren’t on the list of projected starters are all pretty big names with some skins on the wall.
Tyrone Crawford – It’s hard to not have him as a starter, considering he was a captain and had a great season. He’s listed as a DE, which would put him behind Quinn and D-Law. He could always switch back to tackle and rotate there.
Sean Lee – Again, he’s one of the defensive leaders and he won’t need to start to have that role. Like Crawford, he could play the SAM, but having him rotate on defense and the nickel is more likely.
George Iloka – The Cowboys brought in the veteran safety to compete. He might unseat Heath or Woods for a job but he will have to earn it. Still, having his experience back there won’t be a bad thing. And if he’s anything like the other Boise State players on the defense, watch out!
Taco Charlton – The Cowboys are waiting for him to emerge. As he enters his third pro season, perhaps this is the time for him to break out.
Randy Gregory – Lots of question marks surrounding him and his availability. The Cowboys have covered themselves with Quinn on the team now. But if Gregory can be eligible to play for at least part of the season, that would only enhance the pass rush.