Mailbag: Areas of Concern on Defense, and the Greatest Threats to Dallas in the NFC

The United States Postal Service returns to its deliveries today, and so do we. It’s time for the Cowboys Blitz mailbag.

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Growing Pains

Corner would seem to make the most sense.

The defensive line is an obvious choice, but you’ve nixed that as an option for this exercise. Dallas usually only plays with two linebackers, and Sean Lee is half of that unit. Byron Jones has been steady the last two years, Jeff Heath has shown improvement, and they seem to be excited about both Xavier Woods and Kavon Frazier.

Dallas hit the reset button on its corners this offseason. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr were allowed to walk, they tried to trade Orlando Scandrick, and they acquired four new bodies between free agency and the draft (Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Marquez White).

Anthony Brown played really well in 2016, but it gets thin behind him. Awuzie and Lewis were considered by many to be top 50 talents in April’s draft, but there’s still going to be a learning curve. The odds that even one of them, let alone both, aren’t going to experience growing pains this season are slim. That can be said even without bringing up White, who remains raw as cookie dough despite his impressive measurements.

Scandrick and Carroll are both on the wrong side of 30 at this point. In the last 14 years, only six of the 29 corners selected as a first-team All-Pro were in their 30s: Ronder Barber, Charles Tillman, Adam Jones, Aqib Talib, and Charles Woodson twice. Scandrick missed all of 2015, and struggled at times in 2016, which means it’s been two years since we last saw Scandrick playing good football. Carroll hasn’t experienced the type of sharp decline Scandrick has, but he’s not the same talent that he was when he first came to Philadelphia in 2014.

There’s a lot of talent at corner for the Cowboys, but it’s a group that still needs time to grow.

Sizing up the Competition

“Is there anyone the Cowboys should worry about in the NFC? Maybe I’m being a homer, but I don’t see anyone that can compete with them.”

– Ryan via email

Sure, there’s a number of teams that could present difficulties for Dallas. I believe Dallas is the best team in the NFC heading into 2017, but there are plenty of teams that could be a tough match-up for the Cowboys.

Let’s start in the NFC East. New York beat Dallas both times last season, and they’ve won three straight against the Cowboys dating back to 2015. Eli Manning is past his prime at this stage of his career, but there are a number of weapons on offense for the Giants. New York’s 11-5 record was largely due to its stellar defense, which was top 10 in points and yards last season, and allowed fewer than 14 points in four of their final six games.

Washington is another NFC East team that could cause problems for Dallas. The Redskins lost both games in 2016, but the losses were only by four points in September, and five points in November. Say what you will about Kirk Cousins, but he’s torched the Cowboys since becoming Washington’s starter. In his four meetings with Dallas over the last two season, Cousins has a ridiculous 111.5 passer rating with eight touchdowns and just one interception. The Cowboys have given up an average of 458 yards of offense to Washington in the last three meetings.

Outside the division, I would identify Dallas’ top five stiffest threats in the NFC as Green Bay, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Seattle, and Arizona.

The Packers and the Seahawks will always be of concern because of their quarterback play. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson are the two highest rated passers in NFL history. Rodgers is 5-1 the last six times he’s squared off against the Cowboys, and Wilson is averaging 11 wins a season as he enters his sixth year.

Atlanta has a bit of a bipolar history since 1999, losing 11 or more games five times, while also winning 11 or more games five times. Even though you never know what the Falcons will be from one season to the next, their offense was easily the best in the league last season, and they’re still the defending NFC champions. If it weren’t for a historic collapse against the Patriots, we’d be referring to them as the defending Super Bowl champions.

People seem to be sleeping on the Cardinals after they finished below .500, and Carson Palmer contemplated retirement before deciding to return for his 14th season. Davind Johnson is a star for them at running back, and the incredibly youthful defense finished second in yards last season. Bruce Arians brought a 34-14 head coaching record into 2016 before the Cardinals finished 7-8-1. Of the eight losses, five of them were by a touchdown or less. Arizona was tied or leading in the final five minutes of four games that they failed to win. The 7-8-1 Cardinals could very easily have been 11-5.

But I think the biggest threat to Dallas in 2017 and beyond is Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers barely missed the playoffs last season, and it took a fourth quarter rally for the Cowboys to come away with a December victory against them at AT&T Stadium. Jameis Winston is showing maturation and growth to go with his stunning raw ability and natural leadership. Winston and star receiver Mike Evans got help this offseason in the form of free agent Desean Jackson, first rounder OJ Howard, and third rounder Chris Godwin. The defense has tons of talent with Gerald McCoy, Noah Spence, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves, and the newly-signed Chris Baker. The biggest questions for Tampa remain offensive line and safety. But Ali Marpet is a budding star for the Bucs at guard, and they did attempt to fix the safety problems by drafting Justin Evans in the second round, and signing JJ Wilcox away from the Cowboys in free agency.

Of these seven teams I’ve named, I think I’d rank them this way according to level of concern:

7. Green Bay
6. Atlanta
5. Arizona
4. Seattle
3. Washington
2. New York
1. Tampa Bay

I think Dallas is better than all seven, but those teams present some match-up problems for the Cowboys in 2017 and beyond.

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