The Dallas Cowboys are rebranding their defense with the arrival of a new coaching staff and new defensive scheme.
A shift in personnel, too, follows a free agency in which the Cowboys lost four defensive starters, including 11½-sack man Robert Quinn and sticky cornerback Byron Jones.
As the team moves toward a draft in which it’s expected to prioritize defense, executive vice president Stephen Jones offered another clue Friday about what lies ahead.
“You want to have flexibility, you want to have great players, you want to be able to scheme against the offense you’re going to play around,” Jones told Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan on Friday afternoon. “A perfect example of that and people who’ve had tremendous success is Coach Belichick in New England in terms of how they scheme and how they use different fronts and different schemes in order to have success on the defensive side of the ball.”
The Cowboys, of course, aren’t the first to look toward Bill Belichick and the Patriots’ enormous success to find pointers on outsmarting opponents. Belichick’s schematic genius has been key to New England’s six championships in his tenure.
But the Cowboys, in recent years under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, theorized differently. Marinelli’s 4-3 zone defense emphasized defensive linemen playing at their fastest and focusing on one gap rather than regularly redefining a player’s responsibilities.
DeMarcus Lawrence, one of the key players on the Cowboys defense, signed a five-year extension last season. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
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Defensive linemen aimed to wreak havoc at the line of scrimmage to compensate for the Cowboys investing less resources in their secondary. The Cowboys signed left defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence last offseason to a five-year, $105 million extension. He’s “our bellcow,” VP player personnel Will McClay said January from Senior Bowl practice.
The pieces around Lawrence and linebacker Jaylon Smith, also locked up last offseason, are shifting, though. Job titles could, too.
The Cowboys have under contract two pass rushers appealing indefinite suspensions. Randy Gregory, the team’s 2015 second-round selection, has applied for reinstatement, a person with knowledge of the situation confirmed to USA TODAY Sports. The person was granted anonymity because of the sensitive nature of league appeals.
Likewise, a person with knowledge of recently signed Aldon Smith’s reinstatement bid told USA TODAY Sports that the seventh overall pick of the 2011 draft (by the 49ers) has begun his reinstatement process and has been clean for nine months. Smith showed a high ceiling with an NFL-record 33½ sacks in his first two seasons — and 47½ in five seasons total. But he hasn’t played a game in more than four years.
Each player’s most recent suspension was given for violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. That policy changed in March under the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement.
Should either or both be reinstated, they’ll aim to return to the field with Dallas.
“You certainly want to give them every opportunity to have success with their battles off the field,” Jones said Friday. “Obviously we’re working hard, putting off-field priorities first. But with guys like Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory, they’re long guys who can rush the passer from that outside spot.”
Jones said Nolan and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula would scheme players like Smith and Gregory as hybrid strongside linebacker/pass-rush specialist.
“Traditionally with Rod we used typically more just 4-3 and typical defensive ends,” Jones said. “I do think you could see some situations there where you are looking at a pass-rusher type that can rush the passer from, if you will, more of a SAM/DPR-type position.”
The Cowboys are expected to bolster their secondary and defensive-line rooms early in next week’s draft. Jones denied reports that the Cowboys are intent on spending a high draft pick on a linebacker to join Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee.
“That’d be news for me,” he said, “in terms of a heightened need at the position.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
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