Parsons, others Cowboys defenders believe they can anchor a Super Bowl contender

FILE - Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons watches from the sideline during a preseason NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2022. The Cowboys open the season on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford N.J., against the New York Giants. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Micah Parsons isn't the only two-time All-Pro on the Dallas defense after the offseason addition of cornerback Stephon Gilmore in a trade.

Gilmore's partner on the other side, Trevon Diggs, is a 2021 All-Pro who is tied for the NFL lead with 17 interceptions since entering the league three years ago, and just signed a $97 million extension.

The return of other key pieces around Parsons, and what coach Mike McCarthy calls one of the deepest groups of safeties he has seen in a long career, has the defense believing it can be an anchor for a Super Bowl contender.

Dallas opens the season Sunday night at the New York Giants in a matchup of NFC East rivals that didn't win the division, but each won a playoff game last season.

“I feel like this is the best team, best defense I’ve ever been on,” Parsons said. “And I’ve been grateful to be on some pretty good defenses since Penn State. And then you come in here, just adding (Gilmore) was like that, just extra boost to your confidence, to the back-end communication, having a solid guy next to Tre. I’m predicting a lot of good things from these guys this year.”

The Cowboys haven't been dominant on defense because of inconsistency stopping the run. But Dallas has been opportunistic, becoming the second team to lead the NFL in takeaways in consecutive seasons after forcing 33 turnovers in 2022.

Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch handles the calls from defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and it was clear the Cowboys missed him when a recurring neck injury kept him out of the final three games before the playoffs last season.

Vander Esch returned for the postseason, and the defense was solid in both a wild-card win over Tampa Bay and a divisional loss to San Francisco.

The Cowboys, coming off consecutive 12-win regular seasons, haven't reached an NFC championship game since the last of the franchise's five Super Bowl titles to finish the 1995 season.

“We have the group to do it, but none of that means anything unless we go get these wins and we stack these wins together,” Vander Esch said. “I think everybody's focused on that, but everybody's competitive edge on this team is the most I've ever seen.”

Parsons is the star pass rusher with a chance to join Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White as the only players with at least 13 sacks in each of their first three seasons since sacks became an official stat in 1982.

Before Parsons was drafted in the first round in 2021, DeMarcus Lawrence was the big name on Dallas' defensive line. Now he's among the eight players to get at least two sacks last season (he had six).

All eight of those players are back for a team that was among the best in generating pressure last season, and playing the opener against a New York team that was among the worst protecting against it.

“My mindset is always that we’re the best D-line in the world,” Parsons said. “Whether they gave up the most pressures or we had the most pressures or I had the most pressures, it don’t matter if I don’t go out there and do it right or show why I’m the best in the world.”

Safety Donovan Wilson might miss the opener after straining a calf early in training camp, but the Cowboys have plenty of reinforcements at a position that has been a trouble spot in the past.

Malik Hooker is becoming a mainstay after an injury-filled career as a first-round pick in Indianapolis. Jayron Kearse has the versatility to look more like a linebacker in many of Dallas' schemes.

Israel Mukuamu has shown the skills of a cornerback, and second-year man Juanyeh Thomas has been a standout in training camp.

“We look great on paper, but that paper isn't blocking, that paper isn't catching, that paper isn't covering, tackling, none of those things,” Kearse said. “We just have to come in with the right mindset day in and day out to go out and get the job done because we know we have everything in place to do so.”

Gilmore, the 2019 AP Defensive Player of the Year, is just one key veteran Dallas added. The other is receiver Brandin Cooks. By the end of September, both will be in their 30s with double-digit years of experience.

The Cowboys are young in plenty of spots, and clearly sought experience to help quarterback Dak Prescott with leadership.

“You can feel the additions,” McCarthy said. “The veterans are very conscientious about bringing not only what they do to the table but helping younger players. You’re always trying to find ways to grow the bottom half of your roster. I think we have an outstanding group that helps us in that area.”