Cowboys Mailbag: What will the defense look like in 2020?

PFN Cowboys and draft analyst Dalton Miller answers fan questions surrounding what the Cowboys defense may look like in 2020 under a new coaching staff.

The Dallas Cowboys have had a pretty uneventful offseason, eh? The coaching staff was turned upside down, with only a few pieces carrying over from the old regime. They will be going from an Air Coryell offense to more of a West Coast look offensively. They let their best defensive player walk in free agency, and they somehow forgot to pay Dak Prescott, despite all of the social media reminders not to. However, one of the most intriguing questions surrounding this team is simply, “what will this Cowboys defense look like in 2020?”

A few more interesting questions will get answered here as well, but this was one of the first, and overall most intriguing, questions surrounding the 2020 Cowboys to date. They replaced Rod Marinelli with Mike Nolan, brought on Jim Tomsula to coach the defensive line and the tandem of Maurice Linguist and Al Harris to coach the secondary.

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Will the Cowboys run a 3-4, 4-3 or hybrid defense in 2020?

It’s going to be a hybrid. We’ll see defensive line principles that are quite different than they were under Marinelli. There will be a lot more situations where defensive linemen have two-gap responsibilities instead of simply shooting a gap to try and cause disruption. Additionally, gone will be the days where we see the Cowboys only sending five or more rushers on 23% of snaps. When Jaylon Smith is one of your linebackers, that is very much a good thing.

But what will be even more interesting than the defensive front is the secondary in 2020. The playbook is about to be a lot more in-depth. However, with the pandemic slowing things down, the Cowboys returning players better not have procrastinated on their homework. The selection of Trevon Diggs, outside of being a great value in terms of his talent, really points to a philosophical shift in the way the Cowboys’ coverages will work.

The Alabama defensive playbook is immense in size and complicated in deployment. Diggs played both in the slot and as an outside corner in Nick Saban’s defense, and his familiarity with those coverage schemes could give him a nice head start, even as a rookie.

Related | 2020 NFL Draft Scouting Report: Alabama CB Trevon Diggs

The Cowboys secondary will play a lot more matchup-based coverages than they have in the past. They will also be disguising coverages more this season than they did before. Additionally, with both safeties being more free safety than strong, the defense should be based more as a two-high quarters shell instead of a single high.

What this means, most likely, is that there will no longer be a right and left cornerback. Instead, because of the way coverage assignments work and the intricacy of each position, there will be a boundary cornerback and a field cornerback. The boundary cornerback is usually in man coverage, often press, which makes the Harris hire all the more important.

This style of defense will make for more opportunities to turn over the football, but the communication necessary also allows for more breakdowns in coverage and big plays to be allowed. However, if the Cowboys’ defenders read their keys well and remain sound in their assignments, there is a good chance the defense looks better than 2019.

Who will get the start in the secondary in Week 1?

This has to be the single most intriguing question about the team going into 2020. The Cowboys let Byron Jones walk in free agency, so there is an All-Pro level void left at cornerback. The Cowboys re-signed Anthony Brown to a 3-year, $15.5 million dollar contract, which means he probably has first shot at a starting spot.

If the 2020 Cowboys defense goes with a quarters based matchup-heavy scheme, there shouldn’t be any questions about Chidobe Awuzie being the field cornerback, as it is a perfect fit. He’ll be able to play off and outside, reading outside to inside while keeping his eyes and body to the quarterback. Coming forward and being aggressive in zone coverage is where he thrives. He’ll still have to carry receivers downfield, but hopefully, the days of playing through the ball instead of turning and locating the ball are as gone as Kris Richard.

On the other side, there is a good chance that Trevon Diggs gets his shot as the second starter on the outside. His experience, length, and physicality are enticing, but it’s his background as a receiver and his ball skills that should give him the nod over the other names.

Related | 2020 NFL Draft Grades: Dallas Cowboys

That brings the fight to the slot, where Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis will battle it out. With his contract and his steady play in the slot, the assumption is that Brown will get the nod, at least to start the season. However, as dime defenses are becoming more prevalent in the league, and there will be certain personnel groupings and matchups that the Cowboys will like to go small against, much like when they tasked Lewis with mirroring Alvin Kamara two years ago.

The safeties are easy to call but don’t think just because there are an entrenched starter and a veteran free agent that we don’t see a bit of Donovan Wilson, who has experience with defensive backs coach Maurice Linguist from their days together at Texas A&M.

The Cowboys defense in 2020 will certainly look different. Let’s hope that the grass is greener on the other side.

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