It is often said that any NFL team is at its best when younger players can push those ahead of them on the depth chart for starting jobs and snaps. With seven of the Dallas Cowboys’ nine 2017 NFL Draft picks going towards the defensive side of the ball, this will likely certainly be the case for Rod Marinelli’s defense this season – looking to make improvements through continued returns on quality free agent additions, trusted veterans, and of course these seven new rookies.
After exploring how Ryan Switzer, Noah Brown, and some of the intriguing Cowboys UDFAs on offense could help this team in 2017, let’s do the same on defense.
DE Taco Charlton (Round 1 Pick 28)
Despite not being the most fan-favorite pick on the first night of the 2017 Draft, projecting what Taco Charlton will do for the Cowboys in his first season is pretty simple to an extent – line up at defensive end and rush after opposing quarterbacks.
A pass rusher is exactly what the Cowboys have lacked in the past few seasons, featuring two playoff exits to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, and they now have a solid one to mold in Charlton. Dallas is committed to letting Taco develop by working against Tyron Smith at the currently lackluster RDE spot, but naturally were also attracted to him because of his versatility to play on the left side (where he made most of his flashes at Michigan) and inside at defensive tackle.
Wherever Taco Charlton lines up across the Cowboys’ defensive line in 2017, expect him to log plenty of snaps and be disruptive against the run while flashing as a pass rusher that should only get stronger as the season progresses.
CB Chidobe Awuzie (Round 2 Pick 60)
If Charlton’s role is easy to project for the Cowboys in his rookie season, Colorado defensive back Chidobe Awuzie’s is anything but – which is exciting.
The best thing the Cowboys did in this draft was completely turnover a secondary that lost cornerstone players in free agency, replacing these starters with younger, athletic studs.
Awuzie is a magnet for the football and should mesh perfectly into Dallas’ new defensive backfield, playing with the likes of Anthony Brown, Nolan Carroll, Orlando Scandrick, and third round pick Jourdan Lewis at CB.
His experience at safety only adds to what Joe Baker and Greg Jackson are looking for in the secondary with versatility and athleticism, but I fully expect the Cowboys to work Awuzie at cornerback and trust what they currently have at safety.
This doesn’t mean that Awuzie won’t line up in off coverage, with the ability to rally to the football downhill and tackle, but in need of starting cornerbacks the Cowboys got one with their second pick in this draft.
CB Jourdan Lewis (Round 3 Pick 92)
Rightfully so, it seems that the draft-weekend Orlando Scandrick trade rumors surrounding the Cowboys were just that, as the veteran CB is still an important part of this secondary.
Jourdan Lewis is the reason these rumors made sense though, as one of the stickiest cover guys available in the entire draft – slipping to the third round partially because of his size along with a domestic violence incident during the draft process.
As the 92nd overall pick, Lewis became a steal for the Cowboys, where he can make the smooth transition from primarily a slot CB at Michigan to a Nickel CB in Dallas.
Its clear the Cowboys built this new secondary with the idea of defending more passes and creating more turnovers, both areas that Lewis can help them improve in with his elite cover and ball tracking skills.
S Xavier Woods (Round 6 Pick 191)
If I had to pick a Cowboys draft pick that I expect to outplay their drafted position the most, it would undoubtedly be Louisiana Tech’s Xavier Woods.
Along with seeing starting cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr move on in free agency this offseason, the Cowboys lost safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. As mentioned, I still feel the team is confident in what they have at safety with cornerstone player Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, and veteran Robert Blanton.
Woods could play a major role in this safety rotation too, as the Cowboys were at their best defensively when they changed looks with their safeties in coverage last season. A solid replacement to Barry Church in his line of scrimmage enforcer role, Woods already gives the Cowboys more flexibility at this spot as a rangy safety that can patrol sideline to sideline with fluidity, hitting power, and a knack for creating turnovers.
Woods may remind some fans of J.J. Wilcox when he comes downhill to hit as well, making him a ridiculous value in the sixth round for the Cowboys. Look for him to truly line up all over the field in 2017.
CB Marquez White (Round 6 Pick 216)
Over the course of one draft weekend, the Cowboys’ secondary went from a major concern to a unit that may not have a spot for this very draft’s 216th overall pick. Drafted for his traits after making the transition from basketball to football at Florida State, White has the size and length to become a solid player in this league.
Whether or not he puts everything together and improves his overall awareness at the CB position in time to make an impact on the Cowboys in 2017 will be an interesting development to follow through training camp, but White certainly has the upside to become another late-round starter that Dallas needs to add even more depth defensively.
There’s little question on tape that White can turn and run with all types of receivers in man coverage, but his limited ball skills and concerns with his back to the play could stand out significantly if fellow rookies like Awuzie and Lewis continue to make the plays they did in college with the Cowboys on the football.
DT Joey Ivie (Round 7 Pick 228)
The strength of the Cowboys’ much-maligned defensive line is on the interior at DT. This did not stop them from using two of their last three picks in this draft on extra bodies for Rod Marinelli to work with at DT, both of whom have the traits to legitimately fight for their roster spots.
Florida’s Joey Ivie projects best as a 3T DT, winning inside with initial quickness and some developed hand work that made up for enough of his lower body limitations and functional strength on tape in the SEC to warrant this pick.
At this position, Ivie will have to compete with second-year player Maliek Collins – a developing star playing at the most important spot in Marinelli’s scheme – along with veteran Tyrone Crawford and David Irving.
I expect Ivie to have his flashes through the preseason, but ultimately find a hard time sustaining a high enough level of play against the Cowboys offensive line in training camp to make the game day roster in 2017.
DT Jordan Carrell (Round 7 Pick 246)
Colorado’s Jordan Carrell was an unheralded player in college, putting in work against the spread schemes seen throughout the PAC 12 as he excelled at freeing up other talented players around him to get to the ball and make plays.
Always playing with the high motor and down-the-line effort that the Cowboys covet, Carrell could be the perfect player to keep around on the practice squad and even push for a spot on the 53-man roster as the Cowboys’ last pick in the 2017 Draft.
Carrell will happily eat up all of the reps the Cowboys will need from him in the preseason to keep their starters fresh, and likely free himself to make some stops against the run along the way.
As you see, the buzz around what the Cowboys defense could evolve into this season certainly seems warranted, as they’ll add as many as four day one starters to an already solid unit that is expecting contributions from last year’s redshirted picks in MIKE LB Jaylon Smith and DE Charles Tapper.
The Cowboys 2016 draft class has already been called their best ever, and if this 2017 class is going to closely follow this success the Dallas defense will be significantly improved with a fantastic young core in place for the future.
This year’s Cowboys training camp projects to be full of key positional competitions, most of which will feature the players above looking to #EarnTheStar in a big way.