Cowboys' defense has new look and new faces, but has it improved?

Aldon Smith reinstated by the NFL (1:53)

Ed Werder explains the details surrounding Aldon Smith's reinstatement by the NFL and what the Cowboys are expecting out of the defensive end upon his return. (1:53)

The Dallas Cowboys' defense in 2020 will have a different look than it has had since 2013, with Mike Nolan now serving as coach Mike McCarthy's defensive coordinator.

What is that look exactly? The Cowboys will be a 4-3 base team, but will have multiple looks and coverages they didn't use much under former coordinator Rod Marinelli and playcaller Kris Richard.

"There's a lot more defenses, to be honest," safety Xavier Woods said, adding the Cowboys will disguise more of what they are doing than in the past.

After looking at whether the Cowboys' offense has gotten better, stayed the same or gotten worse in the offseason, here is the position-by-position look at the defense:

Defensive end

Additions: Aldon Smith, Bradlee Anae, Ron'Dell Carter, LaDarius Hamilton

Losses: Robert Quinn, Kerry Hyder, Michael Bennett

Returners: DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, Jalen Jelks

Better, worse or the same? Worse

Quinn led the Cowboys in sacks last season with 11.5. The Cowboys were not going to pay him close to the $14 million a year he got from the Chicago Bears, but they also did not make a major play in NFL free agency or the 2020 NFL draft for a replacement.

Lawrence might have had only five sacks last season, but his pass rush win rate was third-best while facing a higher amount of double-teams. In other words, he was still affecting the passer if not getting the sack.

Crawford's return to the defense will be a boost despite the naysayers. His absence from double-hip surgery affected the front more than folks know. He is not a high-sack player, but he can play multiple spots. He will likely play a similar role to what Bennett served after being traded to the Cowboys from New England.

While there could be some growth from players such as Armstrong, Jackson and Jelks, Smith is the biggest wild card primarily because he has not played in a game since 2015. When he was at his best, he had few peers as a pass-rusher, but can he still do it after so much time off?

Defensive tackle

Additions: Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Neville Gallimore, Justin Hamilton, Garrett Marino

Losses: Maliek Collins, Christian Covington, Daniel Ross

Returners: Antwaun Woods, Trysten Hill

Better, worse or the same? Better

Under Marinelli, the Cowboys valued quickness more than size in the middle of the line. The Cowboys are operating differently now, especially with the addition of Poe, who is 346 pounds. McCoy was Dallas' biggest free-agent signing, and the hope is that his versatility can be a plus for the pass rush.

"I mean, they're two damn good, veteran football players. Lot of experience. They definitely fit what we're trying to do up front, inside," McCarthy said. "Our outlook on how you play defense, you've still got to stop the run. And then you've got two big guys that can give you pass rush, too. They're definitely a big part of changing the look and the emphasis of how we want to play on the interior of the defensive line."

Last year's second-round pick, Hill, will wipe the slate clean after a subpar rookie season, but he will have to prove to the coaches he is willing to work. If he doesn't, then this year's third-rounder, Gallimore, will have a chance to be a major part of the interior rotation.


Additions: Francis Bernard, Azur Kamara

Losses: Christian Covington, Malcolm Smith, Ray-Ray Armstrong

Returners: Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Joe Thomas, Justin March, Luke Gifford

Better, worse or the same? Same

This position group has a chance to be so much better with the return to health of Vander Esch, who played in nine games in 2019 because of a neck injury that required surgery. He is feeling better than he did at any point last season, but the true test will come in training camp.

Smith needs to return to his 2018 form, even if he was added to the Pro Bowl last year. While the offseason has been "virtual," Smith has been training more than last spring when he was at Notre Dame to finish his degree. Lee showed he can still be a top-end player, even if he is on something of a pitch count.

The Cowboys re-signed Thomas, who can play all three linebacker spots, and March, who can be a valuable special-teamer, but for the third time in 10 years the Cowboys did not draft a linebacker.


Additions: Daryl Worley, Maurice Canady, Trevon Diggs, Reggie Robinson, Saivion Smith

Losses: Byron Jones, Donovan Olumba

Returners: Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown, C.J. Goodwin, Deante Burton, Chris Westry

Better, worse or the same? Same, but with some questions

Losing Jones to the Miami Dolphins was a big blow, but it was not unexpected since the Cowboys were not going to approach the $16.25 million-a-year offer Jones received. While Jones did not take the ball away, he was ninth-best in completion percentage allowed among players with 50 targets as the nearest defender in 2019, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He gave up three touchdowns. Would you rather have a corner with four interceptions but give up more completions and/or touchdowns?

The Cowboys did not stand pat at the position even with Awuzie and Lewis entering the final year of their rookie contracts and Brown being re-signed. Diggs, a second-round pick, had three interceptions last season at Alabama and has tremendous athleticism. Robinson, the Cowboys' fourth-round pick, had four picks last season at Tulsa. Worley can play all across the secondary and Canady has solid ability.

The bottom line, however, is they must get the ball. The Cowboys have not had a cornerback with four interceptions in a season since Terence Newman in 2011.


Additions: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Luther Kirk

Losses: Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier

Returners: Xavier Woods, Darian Thompson, Donovan Wilson

Better, worse or the same? Better

Clinton-Dix, who has 16 career interceptions, reunites with McCarthy, and his old coach hopes he can bring to Dallas some of that playmaking ability. The other seven members of the secondary with NFL experience have 21 INTs between them. Clinton-Dix will take some curious angles and miss some tackles, but he brings some talent to the position that the Cowboys have not had in years.

Woods has been a full-time starter the past two seasons and is entering a contract year. If he can continue on the same trajectory he has had, the Cowboys could have a good 1-2 punch at safety.

The Cowboys have flirted with the idea of giving corners, such as Awuzie and Robinson, some looks at safety, but they will allow Thompson and Wilson a chance to show they can be counted on this summer.