Last week I took a look at the needs on the offensive side of the ball heading into the offseason. Now I am going to take a look at the defense. Obviously the Cowboys will need help at safety but there are several other positions that will need help through free agency or the draft.
Defensive Tackle (Jay Ratliff, Josh Brent, Sean Lissemore) - Rob Ryan seems to be planning on keeping Ratliff as the starter in the middle rather than moving him out to defensive end. That means the Cowboys are pretty well set at this position. Ratliff is a pro bowler and Josh Brent showed promise last year in his limited time. Lissemore is a developmental project so it is too early to determine if he has any long term promise. I would still like to see the Cowboys find a big, sloppy, mean guy to man the middle and move Ratliff out to defensive end but it doesn't look like that will happen.
Defensive End (Stephen Bowen, Igor Olshanksky, Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher, Clifton Geathers) - The Cowboys need a lot of help at defensive end as it stands right now. Bowen, Spears and Hatcher are all set to be free agents this offseason. I would like to see Spears come back because he is so stout against the run. Hatcher and Bowen both had a chance to win the job after Spears went down and neither guy played lights out. Bowen seems to get the most praise from opposing coaches between the two. Olshansky was a Wade Phillips guy but he has been solid since he arrived in Dallas. I expect the Cowboys to draft a defensive end but I think Spears and/or Hatcher will be re-signed.
Outside Linebacker (Demarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Victor Butler, Brandon Williams) - The starters are set here. Demarcus is one of the best defensive players in the league but Spencer needs a bounce back season. Rob Ryan had a lot of praise for Spencer so I expect the new attacking defensive scheme to benefit Spencer. Depth is the problem at outside linebacker. Victor Butler is a good pass rusher but undersized against the run. Brandon Williams was a Wade Phillips guy and has battled knee problems so he is running short on time to prove himself. I expect the Cowboys to draft an outside linebacker for depth.
Middle Linebacker (Bradie James, Keith Brooking, Sean Lee, Leon Williams) - The Cowboys are old at middle linebacker. Keith Brooking will probably lose his job to Sean Lee next season. Bradie James is a solid player but is hitting the downside of his productive years. I hope the Cowboys can find a way to convince Brooking to come back next season in a reserve role. I'm hoping the Cowboys target a middle linebacker in the first half of the draft that can supplant Bradie James in the next few years.
Cornerback (Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick, Mike Jenkins, Bryan McCann, Alan Ball?) - I know a lot of people want to run Newman off but I think he has 2-3 very good years left in him. He is a good player when he has help at safety. Jenkins got off to a bad start and then the officials seemed to be looking for a reason to throw a flag on him for the first 8 games this year. He settled down and played better in the second half of the season. I was ready to cut Scandrick early in the season he was so bad, but by the end of the season he was playing very good. McCann showed some flashes last season but he needs a lot of work. Alan Ball is now listed as a cornerback on the Cowboys roster on their website so hopefully the experiment is over and he can move back to his natural position. If Ball moves back to cornerback the Cowboys are in good position in terms of depth but still need to find a cornerback late in the draft to develop.
Safety (Gerald Sensabaugh, Alan Ball?, Barry Church, Danny McCray, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah) - The Cowboys are hurting at safety. Sensabaugh is a free agent but could come back if the price is right. But the free safety spot is probably the biggest hole on the roster. I'm hoping the Cowboys will target a proven free agent to step in a immediately improve the secondary. Alan Ball needs to be moved back to corner if he hasn't been already. Barry Church has promise down the road as a strong safety. AOA had so many injuries this season there is no way to know if he has any potential. The Cowboys need to hit safety in free agency and early in the draft. This position has been a problem for far too long.
When you go through position by position it doesn't feel quite so much like the sky is falling like it did during the season. There are players who regressed like Spencer and Jenkins, but they have shown they have the talent to play at a high level. I expect to see the defense bounce back in a big way next season...but only if free safety and depth concerns are addressed.