FRISCO, Texas — Let’s get the caveats out of the way: NFL free agency is not over after one week. Plenty of quality players remain. And there’s always the 2021 NFL draft as a way for a team to improve.
But it’s clear the Dallas Cowboys believe the biggest addition they have made and will make to their defense is coordinator Dan Quinn.
Additions on defense through free agency have included the Cowboys keeping cornerback Jourdan Lewis on a three-year deal worth $13.5 million, adding safety Keanu Neal (one year, max of $5 million) and signing defensive linemen Tarell Basham (two years, max $6.5 million), Carlos Watkins (one year, $1.75 million, $400,000 guaranteed) and Brent Urban (one year, $1.75 million, $500, guaranteed).
The Cowboys aren’t sure yet if Neal will play safety or linebacker, but his history with Quinn suggests he will be an upgrade on defense. Of course, many assumed the same with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and his relationship with coach Mike McCarthy last season, but the safety didn’t make the team.
Basham (3.5 sacks), Watkins (2) and Urban (2.5) all posted career highs in sacks in 2020.
Basham, who played with the New York Jets in 2020, had as many sacks as Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson had last season. Urban, with the Chicago Bears in 2020, had as many as Everson Griffen had in seven games with the Cowboys before getting traded. Watkins, the former Houston Texans defensive tackle, had as many sacks as Tyrone Crawford.
Maybe the hope is Basham becomes Benson Mayowa, who had six sacks in his first season as a free-agent pickup for the Cowboys in 2017; Watkins becomes Nick Hayden, who helped improve a run defense from 2013 to 2015; and Urban is some form of Jeremy Mincey, who had six sacks in 2014, his first season as a Cowboys’ pickup.
The Cowboys have clung to their belief that you don’t overpay in free agency. A year ago, they looked at players who had solid résumés but were on the backsides of their careers in Gerald McCoy, Clinton-Dix, Dontari Poe, Griffen and Daryl Worley, and Dallas received minimal or no production from all of them.
Call the Cowboys’ m.o. stubborn, call it being cheap, call it being pressed against the salary cap, call it whatever you want, this franchise is just not going to make a big splash in free agency.
By not looking to attempt to make a big-time signing, or some might even say a recognizable signing, it is also clear the Cowboys do not want to restructure the contracts of wide receiver Amari Cooper, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, running back Ezekiel Elliott or any other big-money player because of the future cap room that will chew up.
Stephen A. Smith is unsure about Dan Quinn as the defensive coordinator for the Cowboys as he was the coach for the Falcons’ botched onside kick recovery earlier in the season.
All of these decisions tie back to Quinn, who replaced former coordinator Mike Nolan in January.
“He’s got great experience. He is people-skilled. When you’re around him, you’ll see that,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “He’s certainly a dedicated football coach, and he’s covered a lot of ground. We have a lot of tape, so to speak, if you were talking about a player. We’ve got really a lot of information to look at to decide how he fits us. He was absolutely perfect for us in this situation to come in here. He’ll be very influential, extraordinarily influential in how we put together our personnel on defense. He’s got that kind of credibility.”
Quinn comes to the Cowboys after a 43-42 run as the Atlanta Falcons coach from 2015 to five games into the 2020 season. He earned the Falcons’ job based on his two-year run as the defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. In 2013 and ’14, the Seahawks were No. 1 in yards and points allowed and played in back-to-back Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl XLVIII.
The 2013 Seahawks became the first defense since the 1985 Chicago Bears to lead the league in yards allowed, points allowed and takeaways.
But in Dallas, Quinn does not have the Legion of Boom: Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas in the secondary. The Cowboys do not have Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith at linebacker. They do not have a defense line that included Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Brandon Mebane, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin, Tony McDaniel and Red Bryant in that two-year run.
The Cowboys do not believe their defensive talent is as bad as what it appeared to be in 2020, even though as a unit, the defense allowed a franchise-record 473 points last season. Nolan’s scheme was not a fit for the players the Cowboys had on the roster. There was a lack of cohesiveness between what was happening up front and what was happening in the back seven.
Quinn will bring back a system similar to what former coordinators Rod Marinelli, Matt Eberflus and Kris Richard had from 2014 to 2019 when the defense was more reliant on all-out effort rather than superior talent or brainy X’s and O’s. The Cowboys’ defense of old was a complimentary unit to a high-powered offense, especially in 2014 and 2016.
With quarterback Dak Prescott returning to health, along with offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, the Cowboys believe their offense will be among the NFL’s best in 2021, scoring a lot of points, and with that, they won’t need the defense to be the ’85 Bears or even the ’13 and ’14 Seahawks.
Dallas just needs the defense to be competent.
“He’s going to be very special,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said of Quinn. “When we did our diligence, figuring it out with coach McCarthy and Jerry and myself, what he would be like as a defensive coordinator, it was nothing but rave reviews.
“As players, they want to lay it on the line for him. They want to play hard for him. We’ve got a lot of great players on defense, whether it’s DeMarcus Lawrence, whether it’s Leighton Vander Esch or Jaylon Smith, whether it’s a Randy Gregory, who is up-and-coming. Young guys like [Neville] Gallimore and Trysten Hill. There’s a lot to work with there, and I think he’s going to get it out of them. He’s going to put a system in where they can play hard and fast and confident in what they’re doing.”