Massive changes are underway on the Dallas Cowboys’ coaching staff in 2020. With a new head coach and defensive coordinator now in place, could a big change be coming to the defensive scheme? WIll Dallas convert to a 3-4 defense this year, and how easily can that happen given the current roster?
Mike Nolan has been named as the new coordinator this year and his primary background in the NFL has been using the 3-4 scheme. In case you’re unfamiliar, this refers to the base formation of personnel among the defensive linemen and linebackers.
In the 4-3 scheme, which Dallas has employed since 2013, there are four defensive linemen and three linebackers in the front seven. The 3-4 flips those numbers; three linemen and four linebackers.
Dallas used the 3-4 defense from 2003-2012. It was initially installed by Bill Parcells and continued by Wade Phillips. However, after two years of Rob Ryan’s work, the Cowboys chose to bring in Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli to switch back to the traditional 4-3 scheme.
Mike Nolan has worked with both schemes, having run a 4-3 defense during his time with the Atlanta Falcons from 2012-2014. He has spent the last three years as the linebackers coach for the New Orleans Saints, who also use a 4-3 scheme.
Still, Nolan’s primarily considered a 3-4 guy. So if new Dallas Head Coach Mike McCarthy is bringing him in to lead a scheme change, how quickly can the Cowboys make that switch with their current players?
A significant factor in this is who is actually under contract for 2020, which a big issue for the Cowboys across the board this offseason. The massive list of free agents could also mean a perfect environment for changing schemes.
The first player you have to talk about is DeMarcus Lawrence, who just got a massive new contract last year. Can Tank make the conversion to being an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme?
No, Lawrence isn’t as versatile as a Von Miller or Khalil Mack. He’s probably not the guy you want occasionally dropping back into coverage. But he could easily be the strong-side 3-4 LB much like Antony Spencer was for the Cowboys. He would still get to attack the right tackles and play a key role in run defense, where DeMarcus currently excels.
An interesting figure here is Jaylon Smith. Would he play inside linebacker or move to that weak side OLB? Jaylon has legit pass-rushing skills but are they good enough to make that a more heavy portion of his workload?
Centerpiece Leighton Vander Esch works in any scheme and would be great in an inside linebacker role in the 3-4. The question would be who plays beside him; do you re-sign either Sean Lee or Joe Thomas for that spot? Or is that where you prefer to play Jaylon Smith and using someone different as a pass rusher?
The linebackers are actually the easier transition. It’s the defensive line where you’d have some big moves to make, and an especially interesting decision with veteran Tyrone Crawford.
Nobody would’ve expected Crawford to return in 2020 given his reduced role and increasing contract. Tyrone is set to count $9.1 million against the cap and Dallas can save $8 million of that by cutting him.
But if the Cowboys wind up moving to a 3-4 scheme then Crawford may suddenly have increased value. He started in the league in 2012 when Dallas still ran that defense and was brought in originally as a 3-4 defensive end.
However, Dallas could very well take that $8 million in cap space and sign two or even three rotation players. That might be the better value in the end.
The switch would definitely benefit some guys and hurt others. For example, smallish DE Dorance Armstrong could be a nice candidate for converting to a 3-4 OLB. But would Robert Quinn or Michael Bennett, who were great additions in 2019, now be worth bringing back?
Christian Covington’s experience as a 3-4 DE in Houston would make him a smart player to re-sign. But on the other hand, changing schemes would make it even less likely that Dallas would bring back Maliek Collins or Antwaun Woods.
And of course, what about Randy Gregory? If he’s ready to finally make his NFL return, the athletic pass rusher might be a nice fit as an edge rusher. But Randy’s return timetable, if one even exists, is a mystery nobody can solve right now.
There would clearly be a lot of work to do. Thankfully, even after they re-sign key free agents like QB Dak Prescott, WR Amari Cooper, and CB Byron Jones, Dallas should have all the cap space and draft picks necessary to retool the defense.
Clearly, some new faces would have to be brought in. A true nose tackle would be a must and probably either a pass rusher or an inside linebacker depending on where they use Jaylon. But thanks to foundation pieces like Smith, Lawrence, and Vander Esch the task is far from impossible.
Even if the Cowboys ultimately stick to the 4-3 defense there are still plenty of moves needed with all of these free agents. We’ll find out soon just how drastic the changes could be.