Cowboys starting defense appears set for 2023 with 5 months to go

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The Cowboys thrived on the back of their defense for much of the 2022 season. While their offense struggled through various parts of the season, it was the Dallas defense that held fast and allowed them to go 12-5 and survive a five game absence of their franchise signal-caller.

After retaining defensive coordinator Dan Quinn early in the winter, the Cowboys set out to keep the defensive unit intact. With various pieces scheduled to hit free agency, doing so would be no small feat.

Dallas played things carefully. Instead of locking players up in advance of free agency, the Cowboys let things play out. After allowing their top linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch, and their playmaking safety, Donovan Wilson, test the market, they signed both to moderately priced multiyear deals.

They filled their glaring hole at cornerback by adding former All-Pro Stephon Gilmore and they re-signed defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins to plug the middle of their line.

They didn’t just retain players and patch holes, but they appeared to get their starting defense completely in place five months before the 2023 season even starts. While much can change before now and Week 1, on paper, things look fairly set.

Defensive Line

By retaining Hankins, the Cowboys seem to have their starting four in place. DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons are sure to own the top roles on the edge with Hankins and Osa Odighizuwa manning the middle.

Parsons is the superstar of the bunch and a lock to see as many snaps as he can handle. Often listed as a linebacker, Parsons is pass rusher first and foremost. He logged 859 snaps on the defensive line in 2022 and that’s not likely to change dramatically in 2023.

Lawrence is the veteran of the bunch with a well-rounded Pro Bowl game and ability to relocate inside on passing downs. Odighizuwa is an ascending talent at defensive tackle. Named by PFF as Dallas’ most improved player, he’s far and away the top three-technique tackle in the pecking order.

Hankins was the last shoe to drop in free agency but recently came to terms on a one-year deal to stay in Dallas. Neither Neville Gallimore nor Quinton Bohanna appear to be viable challengers to Hankins at the one-technique position, making all four starting spots appear stable.

Based on the quality of play and level of experience on this defensive line unit, even a top draft investment would struggle to overtake any one of these players on the depth chart this season. Rotations are still up in the air but on paper, the starting foursome looks set.

Secondary

The Cowboys had two big holes staring them in the face in their secondary this offseason: 1) at cornerback opposite Trevon Diggs 2) at their third safety spot which logs starter snaps.

Both of those starters from 2022 were free agents and it wasn’t clear either would return. As mention above, Wilson was retained to resume his role as Quinn’s playmaking safety and Gilmore was acquired from the Colts to replace Anthony Brown on the boundary.

Both holes were successfully filled.

Manning the other cornerback position is 2022 rookie standout, DaRon Bland. The Cowboys are fully invested to see both of their young cornerbacks succeed and have to feel pretty good about their starting cornerback situation heading into 2023.

Joining Wilson at safety is Malik Hooker at free safety and Jayron Kearse at strong safety. Both players have unique roles on the Dallas defense and are essentially locks to be starters.

Linebacker

Like many teams, the Cowboys rely on their nickel defense more than the traditional 4-3 base defense. With the prevalent use of 11 personnel, Dallas prefers to match the extra receiver with a cornerback, resulting in only two starting linebacker positions on Quinn’s defense.

The previously discussed third safety also takes snaps away from the linebacker corps, further diminishing the number of snaps played by linebackers in Dallas.

Leighton Vander Esch comes back to be the primary linebacker in Dallas with second-year player Damone Clark the clear favorite for the second spot. The physical toll of the position is significant and specialist roles in certain personnel groups are up for grabs but the top two roles are pretty clearly set.

Conclusion

Historically speaking, defenses are unstable year to year. Unlike offenses that typically maintain performance, defensive performance can turn on the dime.  The Cowboys stated early on in the offseason they want to buck this trend and build a team around their standout defense.

It stands to reason, retaining and improving defensive personnel with proven veterans is great way to achieve that lofty goal.

By essentially filling all the starting defensive roles in March, they’re in no way dependent on the draft to save their defense and keep their strategy alive. They can still draft defensive players (as they should) but barring injury, they don’t require a rookie to fill a key starting role in 2023.

It’s rare to see this kind of stability of such a high-quality unit this early in the offseason but this is where the Cowboys find themselves. Again, much can change in the next five months, but the way things appear today, the starting Dallas defense is in place to not only repeat their stellar 2022 performance, but possibly improve upon it.

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire