There are a lot more new names on the defensive side of the ball for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 than there were in 2019. The Cowboys lost Pro Bowl cornerback Byron Jones in free agency and recently lost one of their big-name free-agent signings in Gerald McCoy to a season-ending injury. The Cowboys 2020 defensive depth chart has plenty of question marks, especially in the secondary, but with the change in defensive philosophy and scheme, they could still perform better than they did in 2019.
Cowboys 2020 defense depth chart
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Defensive line (10)
Starters: Demarcus Lawrence, Everson Griffen, Tyrone Crawford, Donatari Poe
Although it’s not ideal, given the loss of Gerald McCoy on the interior, Crawford will fill the undertackle role for the Cowboys in 2020. Crawford has played on the interior quite a bit in the past, so it makes sense. Ideally Trysten Hill would step into this role as a second-round pick in 2019, but alas, it doesn’t appear as though that will happen. It will be interesting to see how often they ask Crawford to two gap on the interior given his lack of size, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Lawrence and Griffen create a terrifying combination on the edges. Both are stout run defenders with good size for the position. Griffen is the more explosive of the two players, but Lawrence has one of the sharpest pass rush repertoires in the game of football. It looked as if losing Robert Quinn would hurt the team significantly after his stellar 2019, but they arguably got an overall upgrade with Griffen, given Quinn’s struggles against the run.
Poe is a physical specimen the likes of which the Cowboys haven’t seen in a very, very long time. The former 11th overall pick in the 2012 draft has never lived up to that draft capital, but that’s not his fault. He’s a nose tackle, and at 340 pounds, one should not expect him to be a menace versus opposing quarterbacks. Poe is solid against the run, and in a defense that will ask him to hold the line and occupy space as a two-gapping one technique, his natural strength and athleticism should allow him to perform as such.
Depth: Aldon Smith, Antwaun Woods, Neville Gallimore, Trysten Hill, Bradlee Anae, Dorance Armstrong
Smith – We haven’t seen him since 2015. Anything that he brings to the team is gravy.
Woods – He’s been a solid one technique for the Cowboys, but his disruptive style is probably better suited as a depth player and not a starter. Hopefully, we see the best season from Woods yet.
Gallimore – Don’t worry about him not starting. The hype train surrounding the Cowboys draft class was warranted, but Gallimore was always going to be a year or more away from being a consistent player at the next level.
Hill – Talk from camp is that we’ve seen an improved player that’s been disruptive in his second year with the Cowboys. We’ll see about that come game time as he certainly has a lot to prove.
Anae – Another member of the rookie class, Anae is a technically proficient and effective pass rusher who lacks the length and burst to have been a higher draft pick.
Armstrong – He’s never developed into the player we thought he could be after his junior season at Kansas, but he’s more than serviceable as a depth piece at the NFL level.
Starters: Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith
Smith and Vander Esch received a lot of criticism for their down year in 2019, but that’s mostly because of the expectation. Going into the season, the discussion around them was as if they were the best linebacker duo ever to grace the star on their helmet. When neither played up to their 2018 campaign, they were buried as underperformers.
However, the rest of the league, scouts, and media still view the two as one of the best duos in the league. Their responsibility change in the linebacker roles will be interesting to track. Seeing the 6-foot-4, 265-pound Vander Esch at the MIKE role is something to keep an eye.
Depth: Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Francis Bernard, Justin March
Lee – Still possibly the most intelligent linebacker in the league. Even though injuries and age have slowed him a bit, it’s tough to ask for a better third linebacker.
Thomas – A good coverage linebacker who would fight for a starting role on a few other teams in the NFL.
Bernard – Another nice coverage linebacker. Bernard had five interceptions in college and has demonstrated that he can carry backs down the field and mirror on routes from the backfield. Bernard is a great depth piece who can also contribute on special teams.
March – His inclusion is all about special teams.
Starters: Chidobe Awuzie, Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Xavier Woods, Darian Thompson
This is where things get a bit dicey. Awuzie’s battles have been well documented. He’s better than he’s given credit for, and hopefully, under a new regime, he’s able to cash in on some of the solid coverage we’ve seen from him over the past few seasons. Given his athleticism and ability to remain on the hip of receivers, being given the green light to play the football should help his production.
We’ve heard an excessive amount of hype surrounding Diggs from Cowboys training camp. That being said, he’s still a rookie cornerback who’s only truly played the position for two years and isn’t the most fluid athlete. He’ll be fine, but expect bumps and bruises along the way as he works off the training wheels.
Anthony Brown will be adequate in the slot. He’s a great athlete and a solid lower-level starting nickel. This could have been a fight between him and Jourdan Lewis, but Lewis hasn’t been fully healthy so far in camp.
The safeties are the real struggle. In a defense that’s been preaching multiplicity and versatility, Darian Thompson is a bit more of an old school style player. He’s more of a box safety than someone you want roaming the back end, and if the Cowboys go away from more traditional coverages for a more match-based approach, we shall all hold our collective breaths when he’s forced to turn and run the seam with a slot receiver.
We know at this point what we’re getting in Woods. He’s just a solid football player that isn’t going to kill you in coverage and will be serviceable against the run, but will also miss a few tackles here and there. Hopefully, in 2020 we finally see the Woods we were told was practicing in Oxnard last training camp. If we get that level of play, our blood pressure should drop back down to normal levels.
Depth: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Donovan Wilson, Reggie Robinson, Jourdan Lewis, Daryl Worley
Clinton-Dix – There is a reason he’s on his fourth team in three seasons. He’s fine as a depth piece, but while he won’t be a complete liability in coverage, he won’t be great either while also struggling against the run.
Wilson – He’s a complete mystery. After he burst onto the scene last preseason he’s been somewhat invisible. With his ball production last August, you’d think he’d be a shoo-in for a defense that’s preaching disruption and turnovers. Instead of hearing more about Wilson, we’re hearing about cornerbacks, possibly playing safety.
Robinson – Speaking of cornerbacks maybe playing safety, it seems Robinson is actually a safety now. He’s long and explosive as an athlete but is a bit stiff in transition. A switch to safety might be a good fit in the long run, but he hasn’t played it before, and it will take a long time to learn it.
Lewis – Get healthy, “Ball God.” Lewis is a good piece as a fourth cornerback and situational matchup man. He had his struggles in coverage at times in 2019, but his production is unquestionable. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him take the starting nickel job at some point in 2020.
Worley – Rounding out the Cowboys 2020 defensive depth chart is Worley. Another serviceable depth piece with very little unknown about what he brings to the team at this point. He’s played nearly 2,000 coverage snaps since his rookie season in 2016 and offers a solid piece to plug in on the outside should one of the two starters go down with an injury.