Dallas Cowboys Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis
The NFL season is so close you can almost taste it. At this point in the summer, teams are filling out their depth charts to see exactly where they stand going into training camp.
The Cowboys defense was heavily ridiculed in 2013 and for good reason. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s unit looked old, tired and disinterested.
This year, under new coordinator Rod Marninelli, the defense will look to vastly improve. They realize the offense is one of the best in the NFL, and the only thing holding Dallas back from a Super Bowl run is the D.
Let’s breakdown the roster and analyze the Cowboys depth chart on the defensive side of the ball.
Depth chart provided by CBS Sports
Left Defensive End
The Cowboys have a decent situation at the left defensive end position. George Selvie is plugged in as the starter until rookie Demarcus Lawrence learns the ropes.
Selvie was a very productive in 2013, posting his best year in the NFL. The fifth-year vet totaled 45 tackles and seven sacks last year, easily surpassing his former career highs.
Demarcus Lawrence was taken with the 34th overall pick in the draft and Dallas fully intends to use him. Even if he doesn’t start immediately, the rookie will see plenty of snaps and hopefully provide a consistent rush off the edge.
Tyrone Crawford and seventh-rounder Ben Gardner fill out the depth chart. Crawford, a former third-round pick, missed all of last season to an injury and scarcely played in 2012. If he remains healthy, Crawford could be a nice surprise.
Left Defensive Tackle
The Cowboys defensive line will look very different next year, but it could actually turn out to be more effective. Henry Melton is now the marquee name at defensive tackle. He returns to play in 2013 after tearing his ACL early last season.
Although we don’t know exactly how he’ll bounce back, Melton has to be the projected starter heading into training camp.
After Melton is another new face in Terrell McClain. The 25-year-old joined the Cowboys this offseason after playing with the Houston Texans last year. He will compete for a starting job.
Rounding out the position are two projects. Amobi Okoye was the No. 10 overall selection in 2007, but has accomplished nothing in his pro career. Davon Coleman is an undrafted free agent out of Arizona State. He didn’t start much in college, however, Dallas would love to find a diamond in the rough.
Right Defensive Tackle
Nick Hayden currently occupies the other defensive tackle spot. He started all 16 games last year and enters camp as the favorite to keep his job. Thankfully for Hayden, Dallas didn’t draft a defensive tackle high in the draft, so he should continue to see plenty of playing time.
Ben Bass, Ken Bishop and Chris Whaley are some of the other backups at defensive tackle. Bishop was selected in the seventh round in this year's draft, while Whaley (2014) and Bass (2012) were both signed as undrafted free agents.
Most, if not all, of these guys will make the roster because of the lack of depth Dallas has up the middle. The team is hoping one of the three steps up and can be a consistent role player.
Right Defensive End
Despite DeMarcus Ware’s departure, the Cowboys could be stronger at defensive end than a season ago. Anthony Spencer returns from injury to reclaim his starting spot. Dallas hopes Spencer, who's in a contract year, can return to his old form.
One of the new faces at end is seven-year pro Jeremy Mincey. The 30-year-old played the majority of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Depending on whether Spencer returns healthy and recaptures his former prowess, Mincey could turn out to be a key player.
The benchwarmers consist of players like Martez Wilson and Caesar Rayford. Both played sparingly in 2013 and will be looking to make a name for themselves this summer.
The Cowboys’ weakest positional group on defense has to be the linebackers. At the strong side, Dallas will probably start second-year LB DeVonte Holloman. As a rookie, Holloman showed signs that he’s capable of playing at a high level in this league.
Behind him is Kyle Wilber, who is expected to be a key contributor in 2014. The former Demon Deacon split time at both end and linebacker for Dallas last year. He started six games and recorded 44 tackles along with two sacks.
Undrafted free agent Joe Windsor from NIU finishes up the depth chart on the strong side. It will be difficult for him to make the team but you never truly know until training camp gets underway.
Sean Lee’s season-ending injury is a huge blow to team morale, but NFL teams must cope to these situations. The Cowboys have quite a few options at middle linebacker this season, and I’m expecting we'll see several of them throughout the year.
Veteran Justin Durant is the lead candidate to fill in for Lee, moving from the outside position he mostly played last year. Even though the middle isn’t his natural spot, Durant, the only true veteran among the Dallas linebacker corps, has some experience playing inside linebacker, having done so with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He will need to be the quarterback of the defense.
The next best option is rookie Anthony Hitchens. The Iowa linebacker was taken in the fourth round with the expectations that he'd sit on the bench in his first year. But Hitchens could very well compete to start.
The Cowboys’ most recent acquisition at linebacker is former Alabama standout Rolando McClain. Dallas signed the recently retired linebacker, hoping that he can reclaim both and interest in football and the form of his collegiate greatness.
Both he and Orie Lemon will need to turn heads at camp to earn playing time.
At the weak side, Bruce Carter is expected to be the man. He had a disappointing campaign in 2013 but will be looking to make up for it by having a bounce-back season in 2014.
Carter had 96 total tackles, including two sacks last year. Those numbers should increase significantly with Lee out of the lineup.
After Carter, there’s a lot of youth and uncertainty. Cameron Lawrence has played in just NFL five games, while both Will Smith and Dontavis Sapp are rookies.
Dallas better hope that its remaining linebackers stay healthy because the unit is thin all over.
The Dallas secondary will be heavily relied on this year. The majority of the pressure will be on veteran Brandon Carr. Since signing a major contract with the Cowboys, he hasn’t played up to expectations.
Carr is hoping the Cowboys front seven can create a lot of pressure on quarterbacks to make things easier things for the Dallas secondary. Carr’s totaled three interceptions in each of the previous two seasons, but he didn't play much like a shutdown corner in 2013.
B.W. Webb will see plenty of playing time, given how much teams throw the football in today's NFL. If he can improve over the summer, he might settle in as a decent No. 4 corner.
Terrance Mitchell was taken in the seventh round and Dashaun Phillips was signed as an undrafted free agent. Most likely, they’ll both compete for a practice squad position.
Barry Church was one of the most impressive defenders in 2013. He tallied 135 tackles last year and was one of the most consistent players on the team. He’s going to have to duplicate his performance again if the Cowboys defense is to improve this season.
Although his starting spot isn’t up for grabs, there are a few interesting backups at free safety.
Matt Johnson, a former fourth-rounder, has been bit by the injury bug since turning pro. He’s yet to play any meaningful time in the NFL. Another injury this summer could turn out to be his last with the franchise.
There’s also youngster Jakar Hamilton, who saw some action in his rookie season. He too could be another player who could end up on the practice team.
Many observers, including myself, thought the Cowboys would use one of their draft picks to select a safety early in the draft. We were wrong.
The message sent from the front office by this decision is that it is comfortable with the players currently on the roster, which should be encouraging to people like J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath.
Wilcox and Heath played significant time last year in spite of not having a lot of experience. After the season I think it’s safe to say Wilcox is the man for the duty. The safety showed plenty of range and the physical ability that Heath appears to lack.
The safety Dallas did draft was Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon in Round 7. He had a great college career, and his skills may transfer into the NFL.
Heading into camp, Morris Claiborne is atop the depth chart at the right cornerback spot, although, it’s not because of his play. Orlando Scandrick is the team’s No. 3, despite at times outplaying both starters in 2013.
Dallas traded up to grab Claiborne No. 6 overall in the 2012 draft. He’s yet to show the talent he displayed while playing at LSU. Claiborne has the skill set to be successful in the NFL, he just has to execute better in 2014 than he has in the past. This defense needs him to be better.
As noted, Scandrick was phenomenal last year. He’s one of the best No. 3 cornerbacks in football.
Sterling Moore rounds out the group. Even though he didn’t play most of the year, he proved to be a decent player on a depleted defense.