Cowboys' Position Battles to Watch Ahead of 2021 NFL Season

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2021

Cowboys' Position Battles to Watch Ahead of 2021 NFL Season

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys bring back a lot of familiar names on the offensive side of the ball in 2021 but will also be donning a new defense. 

    The arrival of new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has brought a big shift in personnel for a defense that struggled in 2020, and both free agency and the draft added new competition at all three levels of the defense. 

    On offense, the return of Dak Prescott, La'el Collins, Tyron Smith and Zack Martin provide a sense of comfort. Mike McCarthy will have a full offseason to get the offense on the same page with his franchise quarterback returning to the lineup. 

    Still, there are some questions left to be answered in the form of position battles. While some have already been decided, there are others where the rotation is yet to be determined. And reports from camp will give us some insight into what the lineup will look like by Week 1. 

    Here's a look at a few of the positions that will have the most intrigue as OTAs and camp get underway.

Linebacker

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    The Cowboys are hoping Micah Parsons will be a key ingredient to their defensive turnaround. The early consensus seems to be he'll step in at the Mike position from Day 1, roving the middle of the field. That's where he said he played at rookie camp. 

    So, one of the biggest questions on the roster will be who is playing the Will position alongside him in sub-packages and on the weakside in base 4-3 alignments. 

    The favorite will be Jaylon Smith. The 2019 Pro Bowler may have had a rough time last season, but he remains the most talented option on paper. However, Leighton Vander Esch will be joined by Keanu Neal as other options to take those snaps. 

    Neal is the most intriguing option. Quinn is familiar with his work as a safety in Atlanta, and he wouldn't have brought him in to compete as a linebacker if it wasn't something he thought he would be good at. 

    Both Neal and Vander Esch are set to become free agents in 2022. With that in mind, Jabril Cox could factor in. The team just used a fourth-round pick on the linebacker from LSU, and he'll be on a team-friendly deal for four years if the Cowboys want him. 

    The pressure will be on Quinn early to turn the defense around. Choosing the right linebackers to get on the field will be key. 

Defensive Tackle

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    There was plenty of blame to go around for the Cowboys' failures on defense last season, but the group of defensive tackles was particularly maligned. As such, the competition for reps on the interior should be fairly open. 

    The returning leaders in snaps last season are Neville Gallimore (37.5 percent) and Justin Hamilton (21.3 percent). Neither were great in those snaps.

    Gallimore posted a PFF grade that ranked him 102nd of 126 qualifying interior defenders. Hamilton didn't have enough snaps to qualify for ranking but his grade of 45.9 is scary bad. 

    Gallimore is likely to get a shot at starting. As a third-round pick in 2020, this is the year he should be expected to be a contributor. Any negatives from his rookie season can't be counted too harshly. 

    Who plays alongside the Oklahoma product will be an interesting thing to track throughout the preseason. Brent Urban provides a veteran option. He has made stops with the Baltimore Ravens, Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans over his six seasons and has been a solid option on some good defenses in that time.

    They also added Carlos Watkins, who amassed two sacks and 27 tackles with Houston last season. 

    Third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa will be a consideration as well. He posted four sacks and six tackles for a loss in seven games in his final season at UCLA. A strong camp could have him playing sooner than expected. 

Cornerback

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Trevon Diggs was a Year 1 starter as a rookie and ended up being the Cowboys' best option at corner. Whether Kelvin Joseph has the same potential as a second-round draft pick is the next question. 

    Joseph was taken seven picks earlier than the Cowboys selected Diggs the previous draft, so the expectations are going to be the same. With the departure of Chidobe Awuzie in free agency, the competition to take over the spot should be wide open. 

    His chief competition will come from Anthony Brown. The veteran might not be the most exciting option, but he's been with the organization for five seasons while posting decent numbers. He has six interceptions and 35 passes defended in those five years. 

    Jourdan Lewis is likely to play in the slot but could compete on the outside as well with a new defensive coordinator on the scene. Nahshon Wright could also factor in, but he's a bit of a long shot since they drafted him 55 picks after Joseph. 

    Again, Joseph should be the favorite here. But he only played 15 games in college, so making the jump to the league could be a challenge. 

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