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Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: Putting Big D Back Together Again


FRISCO, Texas – This signing might have flown under the radar, just another among a multitude of one-year deals the Cowboys cranked out over this week.

You know, the group including some of their own, like practice-squad linebacker Takk McKinley, IR-ed running back Rio Dowdle and veteran special teamer C.J. Goodwin, as well as newcomers in offensive lineman Chuma Edoga, running back Ronald Jones and deep snapper Trent Sieg.

Depth guys with the exception of the deep snapper, if worth his salt Sieg taking over for Jake McQuaide, who finished the final 13 games of 2022 on IR and now signing with Detroit.

But heads up. Somewhat surprised the Cowboys were able to bring back defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. on a one-year deal for reportedly a $3 million max, about what he played for in 2022.

Why wasn't his worth a bigger deal than simply re-signing another depth guy, but one with eight years of NFL experience?

Just thought that, after the year he had with the Cowboys, some team would have given him a shot at upgraded snaps, especially with his history, knowing the guy had an 11.5-sack season as recently as 2019 with the Rams before getting stuck playing in a 3-4 defense in 2020-21 in Atlanta.

But no, Fowler is back for his ninth NFL season, yet turning just 29 in August, the one-time third overall selection by Jacksonville in the 2015 NFL Draft. And so are his six sacks from the 2022 season.

Now a half-dozen sacks might not knock your socks off, paling in comparison to the 13.5 of Cowboys leader Micah Parsons. But look at it this way. His six sacks tied him with DeMarcus Lawrence for third most on the team, behind just Parsons and Dorance Armstrong's eight. Nothing to sneeze at.

Plus, if you think of this 2022 Dallas defense, which finished 12th overall after giving up 330.2 yards a game, sacks and takeaways were the Cowboys defensive calling cards, and why they were only giving up right at 20 points a game – winning nine of the 10 games when holding opponents to no more than those 20 points.

Let's understand the significance of the Cowboys giving up just 342 points this past season. Since limiting opponents to 250 points in 2009, only four times over the last 12 years have the Cowboys allowed fewer than 342 points, all of those consecutively from 2016-19. And remember in the playoffs the Cowboys held Tampa Bay to just 14 points and San Francisco to but 19, certainly a reasonable enough number to have won the game if the offense had simply scored like 20 instead of the measly 12.

Here is another reason to high-five Fowler's six sacks, and that was six sacks as a backup by the way, playing just 29.9 percent of the snaps compared to Parsons' 918 (80 percent) and Armstrong's 543 (47.3 percent). Bringing back his six sacks means the Cowboys are returning 53 of the 54 sacks they produced last year, only Philadelphia (68) and Kansas City (55) having more. Linebacker Anthony Barr's one sack likely is the only one they will be missing.

Not bad. Continuity counts.

And the significance of those 54 sacks? That's the most sacks the Cowboys have recorded since the 59 of 2008, and the second most since the franchise's single-season record 62 in 1985 after sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Also, by re-signing safety Donovan Wilson and restructuring Lawrence's contract to retain him at a more cap-friendly number, those two accounted for another 11 of those 54 sacks.

Wilson's five sacks, by the way, led all NFL safeties in 2022 and tied Bill Bates' franchise mark for most sacks in a season by a safety. And don't forget keeping Wilson out of free agency means not only retaining their 2022 tackle leader (108), but also retaining runner-up Leighton Vander Esch (100 tackles). Wilson's 108 are the most tackles by a Cowboys safety since the 133 of Barry Church in 2013.

And we're not just talking sacks here. Pressures count too. Fowler's 29 QB pressures this past season ranked third on the team, behind Parsons' 69 and Lawrence's 45, those three guys accounting for more than half of the team's pressure (143 of 257).

So when it comes to QB pressures just 10 days into free agency, the Cowboys currently are missing only 16 of their 257 pressures from last season, Barr's six, four each from defensive tackles Trysten Hill (Browns) and Carlos Watkins (unrestricted FA) and two more belonging to defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who they are trying to re-sign.

Let's also remind the Cowboys led the league for a second consecutive season with 33 takeaways, 17 of those a league-high in fumble recoveries of the 21 they forced.

Now then, if the Cowboys can just improve their run defense this unit might be something else. The Cowboys finished 22nd against the run, giving up 129.3 yards a game (2,198 total), just 100 yards fewer than the 2,298 rushing yards the offense gained. History tells us this must dramatically improve if you are going places.

And granted this was a 17-game season, but just the fourth time giving up 2,000 yards rushing in a season since the 2,636 yards of the 5-11 team in 2000, a franchise-record high. Also, the 2,198 rushing yards are the second most since that 2000 season to only the 2,541 of 2020, contributing greatly to getting defensive coordinator Mike Nolan fired.

Yep, great the Cowboys so far have been able to retain the meat of this defense by restructuring Lawrence, re-signing Wilson, Vander Esch and Fowler and trading for veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Think about this: If the Cowboys had to play a game this Sunday, they very well could start a defensive front of Lawrence, Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore and Dorance Armstrong, with Fowler and Sam Williams the backup defensive ends. Then Parsons, Vander Esch and Jayron Kearse at linebacker and a secondary of Gilmore and Stephon Diggs on the corners, Wilson and Hooker at safety, with nickel backs Da'Ron Bland and Jourdan Lewis.

Right now, I'd say when looking at the draft, additional defensive tackles and linebackers are of need. A little thin there, although Damone Clark sure can play some linebacker when Parsons steps up to defensive end, with Jabril Cox only an unproven linebacker hopeful at this point. But a big slobber-knocker defensive tackle up front would be nice to anchor that run defense, why at least re-signing Hankins and/or Watkins would help.

Well, it's just March 24, meaning so far, so good in building that defense. The Cowboys maintain quarterback pressure continuity with Fowler back in the fold.

But now for the ground attack resistance. Opponents ran for at least 100 yards in 11 of 17 games, with six of those at least 150, accounting for four of the five losses: Green Bay 207, Jacksonville 192, Tampa Bay 152 and Washington 151. And Philadelphia gained 136 rushing in the other loss.

Oh, and in the playoff loss, the Niners went for 113 while playing with a third string quarterback.

This part of the defense must improve.

But again, it's only March 24.

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