Cowboys' decisions on defense, special teams: Tricky keeping Byron Jones

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FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' defense will look a lot different in 2020 than it did in 2019 with new coordinator Mike Nolan expected to implement a more varied scheme while keeping a 4-3 base.

Those running the scheme, however, could look far different because of NFL free agency. The Cowboys could be forced to replace their best pass-rusher from 2019 (Robert Quinn), best cornerback (Byron Jones) and their best leader (Sean Lee).

So how would that make them better?

Good question.

We looked at the free-agency questions facing the Cowboys on offense, so let's turn to defense and special teams' free-agency questions with the same keep, let walk and be patient approach.


Byron Jones, CB

2019 stats: 45 tackles with one forced fumble, seven pass deflections in 15 games (14 starts)

Why keep: Some of this could come down to whether the Cowboys have to use the franchise and/or transition tags on quarterback Dak Prescott or wide receiver Amari Cooper. If the tags are used, then Jones is probably going to cost too much. If the Cowboys get a deal with Prescott or Cooper, then that opens up the possibility for him to remain. He does not take the ball away, but he is an effective cover corner. The Cowboys are not a better defense without him.

Robert Quinn, DE

2019 stats: 25 tackles, 11.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, 37 pressures, two forced fumbles, three pass deflections in 14 games (14 starts)

Why keep: The overall feeling is he will command a lot of money. He turns 30 in May and pass-rushers tend to last. He should command a good market after racking up a team-high 11.5 sacks in 14 games. The Cowboys want to keep him but might not be able to afford it. This is probably his last chance to cash in, but, like Jones, the Cowboys are not a better defense without him.

Sean Lee, LB

2019 stats: 109 tackles, 1 sack, six tackles for loss, seven pressures, one interception, four pass deflections in 16 games (13 starts)

Why keep: This is a tough call because the Cowboys have a lot invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Both have injury questions, as does Lee, but he played every game last season and showed he can still play at a top level if his snaps are managed properly. Lee deserves to have a role in the sub packages, which would require a rotation of sorts between the three. Will the Cowboys commit to that? They should.

Jeff Heath, S

2019 stats: 63 tackles, four tackles for loss, three pressures, nine deflections in 13 games (13 starts)

Why keep: Heath catches far too much grief from folks. No, he's not Earl Thomas, but he is solid. He could get more money elsewhere, but that would take him out of the Cowboys' price range. He's durable and tough, and he can play special teams. Plus, he's a leader. Don't be so quick to push him out the door.

Joe Thomas, LB

2019 stats: 36 tackles, one pressure, one forced fumble, one pass deflection in 15 games (two starts)

Why keep: Thomas can play all three linebacker roles and can play on every special-teams unit. The Cowboys don't have someone to fill those roles, especially if Lee leaves in free agency. He can be a cost-effective player and has a history with coach Mike McCarthy.

Kerry Hyder, DE

2019 stats: 19 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, 19 pressures, one fumble recovery in 16 games

Why keep: Hyder is a solid contributor with position flexibility and it was curious to see his playing time fluctuate as much as it did. He won't break the bank and can serve as a decent backup.

Kai Forbath, K

2019 stats: He made all 10 field goal attempts and 10 PATs in three games.

Why keep: Forbath brought some stability to the position; he didn't miss a kick as a Cowboy after Brett Maher missed 10. By no means should he be given the job outright, but he should have a chance to earn it in training camp.

L.P. Ladouceur, LS

2019 stats: He played in all 16 games and has not missed one in his career.

Why keep: Ladouceur remains one of the better long-snappers, who has been healthy and understands his role. The Cowboys don't have a replacement ready. It's a pretty easy call.

Let walk

Michael Bennett, DL

2019 stats: 18 tackles, four sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 24 pressures in nine games

Why walk: The feeling is Bennett is leaning toward retirement rather than playing in 2020. He had some solid moments after the trade from New England, but he had an issue with offside penalties.

Justin March, LB

2019 stats: 10 tackles in 16 games as a backup

Why walk: March is a solid special-teamer and in the locker room, but there comes a point where veteran backups need to be replaced by draft picks or cheaper options.

Malcolm Smith, LB

2019 stats: 14 tackles and a tackle for loss in two games, one start

Why walk: Smith actually played very well in his two-game stint when injuries hit the group late in the season, but he is a guy who might be available later on in the summer if a team has some kind of emergency.

Ray-Ray Armstrong, LB

2019 stats: Armstrong was credited with one special teams' stop in one game.

Why walk: Same line as Smith -- even if Armstrong has some ties to Nolan.

Daniel Ross, DL

2019 stats: Ross spent the season on injured reserve following shoulder surgery.

Why walk: He is set to be a restricted free agent after missing the 2019 season. If he comes back for something cheaper than the low tender ($2.1 million), that is fine, but he has to earn a roster spot.

Be patient

Maliek Collins, DT

2019 stats: 16 tackles, four sacks, three tackles for loss, 30 pressures

Why be patient: Collins is this year's version of Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson. The Cowboys would like to keep him, but he should command more than they want to pay and will have to leave. If the market doesn't fall right for him, then maybe he returns.

Christian Covington, DT

2019 stats: Three tackles in 16 games, including six starts

Why be patient: There will be a change in how the defensive line plays with Rod Marinelli's departure, and Covington might not be a fit here. The Cowboys might actually look for defensive tackles with size this season.

Anthony Brown, CB

2019 stats: 20 tackles, five pass deflections, one tackle for loss, one pressure in nine games

Why be patient: Brown could be in a similar position as Collins, but with his 2019 season ending early because of a torn triceps, his market might be a little slower. If Jones is not re-signed, then that opens up things for Brown, who could look for a short-term deal to have a chance to get back on the market in 2021.

Kavon Frazier, S

2019 stats: Four tackles and one special-teams tackle in four games.

Why be patient: He is a special-teams player and coming off a torn pectoral muscle. The Cowboys were not sold on keeping him last season but liked his experience. With a new special-teams coach in John Fassel, he could have a role.

C.J. Goodwin, CB

2019 stats: Goodwin led the Cowboys in special teams tackles with 10 in 16 games.

Why be patient: Fassel might like what Goodwin offered on special teams. He is fast and doesn't get caught out of position. Defensively, he can play in the sub packages.

Darian Thompson, S

2019 stats: 38 tackles, 1.5 sacks and nine special-teams stops in 15 games (four starts)

Why be patient: The Cowboys need depth at safety, especially if Heath is gone. By keeping Thompson, it would not preclude the Cowboys from adding a safety in free agency and selecting one early in the draft.