The Dallas Cowboys have had a heavy defensive focus through the first two weeks of free agency. And that’s no surprise to anyone who watched the team play last season.
The Cowboys’ defense ended 2020 ranked 23rd in total yards allowed (6,183), 11th against the pass (3,642), and 31st against the run (2,541). The Dallas “D” allowed opponents to score an average of 29.6 points per game, the fifth-highest amount in the NFL last year.
To address their defensive woes, the Cowboys made several changes to both their roster and coaching staff. The most impactful being the hiring of Dan Quinn as the team’s new defensive coordinator.
In free agency, Quinn has opted to bring in a couple of familiar faces from his six-year stint as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Those veterans being safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee. But Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy recently revealed that Neal will start off his time in Dallas with the linebackers, indicating a position change.
Neal’s addition to the linebacker corps may not be the only one as there are several questions surrounding this unit currently. Injuries have plagued the career of former first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch, putting into question whether the Cowboys will elect to pick up his fifth-year option this summer or not.
Fellow starting linebacker Jaylon Smith is coming off another down season despite posting a career-high 154 combined tackles, the second-most in the NFL last year. Despite the impressive stat sheet, Pro Football Focus gave Smith an overall grade of 54.2 for his play in 2020, by far the worst of his career.
At this point, it’s unclear whether 34-year old linebacker Sean Lee will decide to retire this offseason or not after coming off yet another injury-plagued season. Key reserves in Joe Thomas and Justin March hit the open market of free agency last week with the former signing with the Houston Texans.
That leaves the Cowboys with a slew of unproven linebackers on their depth chart. Those names include Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, and Azur Kamara. Clearly, Dallas could use some more experience at the linebacker position. And, once again, Quinn could look to one of his former players for an answer.
The most obvious choice would be free-agent linebacker K.J. Wright. The 31-year old off-ball linebacker has spent his entire 10-year NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks as a fourth-round draft selection by them back in 2011.
Wright was part of Quinn’s Legion of Boom defense in Seattle from 2013-2014, leading the Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. The veteran linebacker has posted triple-digit tackle totals in four of his last six NFL seasons.
In news that could help aid a possible reunion, Wright recently told CowboysSI.com that the Cowboys have always been on his list of dream teams. And that having Quinn in Dallas makes them one of the teams he best fits in with.
Last year, Wright racked up 86 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 10 pass deflections, 2.0 sacks, and one interception as a 16-game starter for Seattle. Sportrac.com puts his estimated annual value at just over $7 million. To put that number in perspective, Jaylon Smith will count $9.8 million against the cap this season. And Sean Lee signed a one-year deal in 2020 worth $4.5 million.
With the signing of Keanu Neal and his expected move to linebacker, the Dallas Cowboys may not feel pressured to add a free agent to their linebacker corps before April’s NFL draft. But there certainly appears to be a need there that K.J. Wright could fill.
But that really comes down to what kind of defensive scheme Dan Quinn is wanting to run in Dallas, how much he values experience, and how many quality/versatile linebackers he believes there are on the current roster.