Dallas Cowboys defenders to enter season with ‘very big chips on their shoulder’

·5 min read

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn didn’t much like the question.

It was one that hit too close to home.

For much of training camp, the Cowboys have trumped up the competition on this team, especially on defense.

They’ve lauded the position flexibility of the players and their unique skill sets, which is allowing them the opportunity to use a variety of packages in order to get the best players on the field in the right situations.

They have talked about the potential of their rookie top pick linebacker Micah Parsons and are downright giddy over what he can do, and how his play might coincide with what are hoped to be bounce-back years for Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.

The Cowboys like the options they have on the defensive line with six new additions that were made through the draft and free agency. They can’t wait to see how the revamped secondary looks with Damontae Kazee and Malik Hooker at safety. And they expect cornerback Trevon Diggs to take a big jump in his second year.

But confidence is based on demonstrated ability. Potential means you haven’t done it yet.

Having to match skill sets means you don’t have one guy who can do it all.

When it comes to having proven performers on defense, the Cowboys are still lacking.

Or as they say in spades, they got one solid book in Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and a big-time possible in Parsons and a bunch of maybes.

“Well, I guess we’ve got to wait and see on that,” chirped Quinn when asked about proven players defense. “Yeah, I see the potential for that. Ball-hawking and tackling and finishing people, I definitely see that.

“That’s the great thing about football, man,” Quinn continued pointedly, making direct eye contact for emphasis. “You get to go out and prove it. The best of the best, you get to prove it. And I have a sense there will be some people on this defense that will have very big chips on their shoulder with much to prove. Coaches included.”

Now, this is the Cowboys of the 2021.

But coming off a 6-10 season in Mike McCarthy’s first year as head coach, the team certainly should have chips on its collective shoulder. The defense was among the worst in franchise history, which has resulted in numerous on-the-field and off-the-field personnel changes — with more possibly coming down the line.

Vander Esch and Smith should take note.

Vander Esch, a 2016 first-round pick, is playing on the final year of his contract with no guarantees for 2022.

The thought of Vander Esch not getting an extension would have been unheard of when he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie and captivated Cowboys with his “Wolf Hunter” nickname. But after two injury-plagued down seasons, this is where things stand.

All credit the Cowboys for being more discriminating with how they spend their money. They are no longer falling for the hype.

“As we move forward and making commitments under the cap, we have to make sure we are right,” said team vice president Stephen Jones. “So it’s not that we weren’t trying to be totally right before this, but it’s more important that we get it right when we spend dollars.”

The latter could be a direct shot at Smith, who got a five-year, $64 million contract in 2019. He is the seventh-highest paid linebacker in the NFL making an average of $12.75 million per season while being one of the lowest-graded starters in the league in 2020 according to Pro Football Focus.

In essence, the Cowboys didn’t get it right. The lack of a rebound this season, could cost Smith a spot on the 2022 roster.

Both Smith and Vander Esch know what’s on the line.

“I felt their intensity from the offseason about what they wanted to improve upon,” Quinn said. “I see that carrying over into their work. They’re both very intentional about what they want to get better at. I’ve definitely seen that come on the field.”

They have to. Their future depends on it.

The same is true for many of the Cowboys offseason additions and upgrades.

Kazee and Hooker are on one-year, prove-it deals. Keanu Neal, another newcomer is being moved from safety to linebacker, and is on a one-year deal, as are defensive tackle additions Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins.

Defensive end Randy Gregory is in the final year of his contract, and the team could possibly decide to part ways with Lawrence who is scheduled to make $19 million in 2022 and $21 million in 2023.

He has just 11.5 sacks the past two seasons and has had two back surgeries since signing a five-year, $105 million contract before the 2019 season.

But, for now, the Cowboys feel good about what they are seeing so far in training camp.

“What I love about this camp is that it’s as competitive as I have seen,” Jones said. “It will be real hard right now to say who is your 53 guys ... We got 65 guys who could be on the 53. Easily.”

Of course, there is a big difference between having a deep competition between a bunch of guys who are fighting for their football lives and building an elite core of players who will form the foundation of a championship team.

The Cowboys truly believe they have a rising star in Parsons. Gregory is having a great camp. Kazee has been an interception machine. And Diggs looks like a future shut-down cornerback.

Now they just have to go out an prove it, Week 1 and every week thereafter.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting