Projecting how Cowboys fill defensive gaps

FRISCO, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys finished with the 14th-ranked defense in yards and ninth in points allowed in the NFL in 2016.

They earned the nickname the “Mighty Orphans” from defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli because they were a group with just one Pro Bowler (Sean Lee) and just one first-round pick (Byron Jones). They were solid if not spectacular, but many viewed the defense as the reason why the Cowboys did not advance further last season.

So far this offseason that defense has lost Terrell McClain (Washington Redskins), Jack Crawford (Atlanta Falcons), Barry Church (Jacksonville Jaguars), J.J. Wilcox (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Brandon Carr (Baltimore Ravens), and they look to be losing Morris Claiborne (New York Jets).

Aside from Church, individually none of the losses would be termed huge. Carr and Claiborne had one interception apiece. Wilcox was a sub-package linebacker. McClain led the defensive line in tackles but was not a blue-chip player. Crawford’s value came in his versatility more than his production.

As a whole, however, that’s quite a large group the Cowboys will have to replace, and what it does is chip away at the team’s depth.

While the Cowboys won’t play a game until September and are still in the free agency process with the draft looming, let’s take a look at a prospective starting defense. (For this exercise we will use 12 starters since the nickel corner plays more than the strongside linebacker)

Defensive end – Tyrone Crawford, DeMarcus Lawrence

Comment: Both are coming back from surgeries with Crawford getting his shoulder fixed and Lawrence getting his back worked on for the second straight offseason. Lawrence had just one sack last year. Crawford had 4.5 sacks. David Irving could push for more playing time as well after a strong push to end last season, and the Cowboys also have last year’s sack leader, Benson Mayowa (six sacks), returning.

Defensive tackle – Cedric Thornton, Maliek Collins

Comment: Thornton was the Cowboys’ biggest free-agent pickup last year, but he could not beat out McClain for the starting gig. He will have the inside track. Collins had a super-productive rookie season with five sacks and 14 starts, and the Cowboys believe he has the upside to be one of the better defensive tackles in the league. It is possible the Cowboys could look to move Crawford back to tackle this year.

Linebacker – Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson

Comment: This is the same group as last season. Lee was an All-Pro selection. Hitchens and Wilson were solid. If Jaylon Smith, last year’s second-round pick who did not play a snap in 2016, can play at a high level, the Cowboys have an upgrade at linebacker, but that remains a big question today.

Cornerback – Orlando Scandrick, Nolan Carroll, Anthony Brown

Comment: Scandrick should be better as he enters his second season off torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Carroll was signed to a three-year, $10 million deal after a productive season with the Philadelphia Eagles. He should replace Carr in the starting lineup. Brown played better than anybody could have expected a sixth-rounder to play. Now the Cowboys are hoping he can continue to improve in his second year. That’s hardly a guarantee, but the Cowboys are putting their faith in Brown with how they have approached free agency. They figure to add a cornerback or two in the draft as well.

Safety – Byron Jones, Jeff Heath

Comment: Jones was solid in his first full-year as a safety. He was around the ball. He did a good job against tight ends. He is a willing tackler. He had an interception last year but missed chances for a handful more. Heath had a terrific showing in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers with an interception and a sack. He has shown the ability to be around the ball in limited playing time but how will he do if needed for 1,000 snaps? There’s no way of knowing that yet. Church did a lot for the defense, even though he seemed to go unappreciated by some in the organization. The Cowboys drafted Kavon Frazier in the sixth round and the hope is he can replace Wilcox’s snaps. Again this figures to be a position the Cowboys look to add to in the draft.