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An emphasis on team speed could be key for rebuilt Cowboys defense

The Dallas Cowboys had one of the worst defenses in the NFL in 2020 but stressing swiftness has been their plan of attack ahead of the 2021 season.

DALLAS — If you’ve ever seen the 1987 movie Top Gun, you’re probably familiar with one of the most popular catchphrases from the classic film starring Tom Cruise: “I feel the need, the need for speed.” 

The Dallas Cowboys know the feeling. After a disappointing 2020 season, and an embarrassing performance on defense, the Cowboys came into the offseason believing that they needed to get faster. In watching the unit last year, it was easy to see how much athleticism and acceleration the defense lacked as the Cowboys’ defense got scorched in too many games.

Mike McCarthy and the rest of the Dallas brass also recognized the lack of quickness and knew that it had to change. In the NFL, where offenses and skill players are getting faster all the time, the Cowboys had a major need to pick up the pace. 

McCarthy admitted this much just before the draft and clued everyone in on tempo being a target.

In paying attention to McCarthy’s pre-draft press conference, we shouldn’t have been surprised to see the Cowboys draft speedy, athletic players. This appeared to be one of the keys to the draft and the organization appears to have succeeded in attaining that goal.

First-round selection Micah Parsons is a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who brings outstanding athleticism when chasing the ball carrier or attacking the quarterback. Parsons has quickness in his movements and ran a 4.39 in his 40-yard dash at his Penn State pro day. His speed eclipses anyone that the team currently has at LB. 

For comparison, Leighton Vander Esch, the other first-round starting linebacker on the Cowboys, ran a 4.65 during his 40-yard run at the NFL Combine three years ago. Vander Esch’s time is good for a LB of his size but makes Parsons’ time even more impressive, even as the former Nittany Lion weighs in around 10 pounds lighter.

Meanwhile, in the second-round, Dallas drafted Kentucky CB Kelvin Joseph to bring some swiftness to the secondary.

At a position where it’s vital to have speed – especially if beaten by these quick wide receivers in today’s NFL – Joseph clocked in with a 4.34 40-yard sprint time at his pro day. Joseph also possesses fluid hips and the athleticism necessary to keep up with wideouts. 

Currently on the Cowboys, only Anthony Brown has bested Joseph’s timed speed, running a 4.33 during his combine in 2016. Brown arrived as a sixth-round pick who had other inconsistencies, so it’s easy to perceive that Joseph has the traits of a special player being drafted four rounds higher. 

In fourth-round selection Jabril Cox, the Cowboys found another athlete at LB. Cox ran a 4.52 in the 40-yard dash and had an impressive 34-inch vertical jump. Cox was thought of as one of the best linebackers at shadowing threats over the middle in the draft and Dallas picked him to be their “cover guy” at the position. 

The ability of Cox to have enough athleticism to cover receivers, running backs, and tight ends is something that the Cowboys have lacked over the last few years. Jaylon Smith hasn’t been the answer and after his serious knee injury in college, he still doesn’t have the lateral movement to stick with receiving options in coverage. Vander Esch hasn’t been healthy, or efficient enough to excel in that role either. 

Veteran Sean Lee – possibly the team’s best LB in coverage – retired and there isn’t another player capable of doing what Cox brings at the position. It’s a pivotal piece of the defensive puzzle where Dallas didn’t have the talent to keep up with offenses. However, Cox has the speed and skillset to fill that role. 

The Cowboys landed three key additions with above average speed through the draft. The rookies should add quickness and athleticism to a defense that was in desperate need of both. Having these traits might not make them good football players, but it’s an encouraging sign that Parsons, Joseph, and Cox have added to the team’s pace in an effort to erase a weakness. 

If all three prove to be worthy selections, the Dallas defense should be significantly better than they were last season. And, at the very least, they’ll be a more athletic defense with speed to burn.

Do you think that the defense of the Cowboys will be improved with more team speed in 2021? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.

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