By drafting Ezekiel Elliott in the first round, the Cowboys have effectively said their best defense is a tremendous offense. They want to limit the snaps for the defense with a controlling ground game, but there has to be points that come with the running game. It worked well in 2014 and the Cowboys want it to work well in 2016.
There are questions at every level from the pass rush to the secondary to the health of key players. The defense kept the Cowboys in games last year but broke too many times late in games. With a better offensive output, their margin of error won’t be as slim but they still need to be better.
Here is a look at the defense and specialists:
DEFENSIVE LINE (16)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Cedric Thornton, Randy Gregory, Jack Crawford, Charles Tapper, Terrell McClain, Benson Mayowa, Maliek Collins, Ryan Russell, David Irving, Casey Walker, Rodney Coe, Mike McAdoo, Jason Neill, Caleb Azubike
The Cowboys know they will be without Gregory and Lawrence to start the season but they did not make any high-priced additions to a group that does not have a long track record of getting to the quarterback. Crawford has to be the centerpiece of the unit as he enters the second year of his $45 million extension. He is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Thornton is a solid, dependable player, signed away from the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent. Mayowa is the man of mystery here with just two career sacks. The Cowboys are banking on Will McClay's ability to find players with Mayowa. There is no “war daddy” up front but they didn’t have one in 2014 either and the pass rush was acceptable.
Lee is recovering from a minor surgery to his knee but is expected to be 100 percent for training camp. He was added to the Pro Bowl last year after a terrific comeback from a torn ACL that cost him the 2014 season. McClain is going through his first offseason program as a Cowboy and they hope the work he puts in during the spring pays of in the fall. If he is motivated, he is a playmaker. Hitchens' versatility is a bright spot in that he can play all three linebacker spots. While Jerry Jones is holding out hope, Smith, the team’s second-round pick is looking at a redshirt season. If he can return to the form he had at Notre Dame, then the Cowboys have one of the best players in the 2016 draft. It’s a big if right now, especially for a defense that needs immediate help.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (16)
Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Byron Jones, Morris Claiborne, J.J. Wilcox, Jeff Heath, Deji Olatoye, Terrance Mitchell, Josh Thomas, Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier, Brandon McGee, Arjen Colquhoun, Jeremiah McKinnon, Rolan Milligan
Cowboys cornerbacks produced two interceptions last year. That must change and the Cowboys hope the offense’s ability to score points will force the opposition to throw more and lead to more takeaways. Scandrick’s recovery from a torn ACL and MCL is key and so far all signs have been positive but he will take his time to make sure he is set for training camp. Carr accepted a pay cut to remain with the Cowboys and Claiborne accepted a one-year deal as a free agent to stay. Jones will play safety in his second year after switching between there and corner as a rookie. The Cowboys believe he has centerfield ability to handle the spot. The Cowboys drafted Brown and Frazier with the hopes they can develop into contributors in a year if not sooner.
The Cowboys are as healthy as they have been at these positions in years. Bailey is coming off his first Pro Bowl and is the most accurate kicker in the NFL. Chris Jones had his best season and has harnessed his power and precision. Ladouceur remains one of the best snappers in the game.