Cowboys altered off-season approach, fortifying already strong defense

The Dallas Cowboys pulled a fast one on Day 2 of free agency by making moves they usually wait days, sometimes weeks, on. After sitting out the first day of legal tampering and losing a few own of their free agents, the Cowboys jumped into the fray with a flurry of transactions.

Of course, the moves didn’t involve signing any outside free agents, but the team did swing a trade to cover one of the glaring holes on their roster. Instead of overpaying to improve, the Cowboys decided to pay two of their own and dealt one of Stephen Jones’ precious compensatory picks for an upgrade at cornerback.

All of which was done to keep a top defense intact. Somewhere, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is smiling.

Two of the moves were expected by the Cowboys. The team could ill-afford to lose safety Donovan Wilson or linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, both of whom were priorities to re-sign.

Wilson returns to be one of the enforcers on defense and keeps a strong trio of safeties on the roster for the 2023 season. Along with Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker, Dallas has their best group of safeties they’ve had in a long time.

All three safeties play unique roles for Quinn and Wilson excels at playing near the line of scrimmage. Wilson is one of the league’s best run-stopping players at the position and is adept when blitzing, leading all safeties in sacks with five.

Without him, the Cowboys would likely have turned to third-year safety Israel Mukuamu as Wilson’s replacement. Mukuamu was used more in coverage last year and the team can still use him in that hybrid capacity.

In re-signing Vander Esch, the Cowboys keep one of their most reliable tacklers. Vander Esch was second on the team in tackles, behind Wilson, with 90 stops, even after missing three games. It was the five-year veteran’s best season since his rookie year when he was a Second-Team All-Pro.

Keeping Vander Esch was essential for the Cowboys. The team is ridiculously thin at LB, especially after losing Luke Gifford to the Tennessee Titans, and considering they are unlikely to re-sign veteran LB Anthony Barr.

If Vander Esch wasn’t retained, Dallas was looking at a LB group that includes Damone Clark, who was able to come back and play after spinal fusion surgery as a rookie, third-year man Jabril Cox, who struggled to get on the field in 2022, last year’s sixth round pick Devin Harper, who barely played before being put on injured reserve in October and veteran Devante Bond, who has done little since entering the league in 2016. Clark has the most potential out of the group and took over when Vander Esch missed time last year, but there is little else in terms quality judging off last season’s results.

The Cowboys desperately needed a top veteran LB on the roster and Vander Esch was a great option because of his familiarity with the organization. He also stays on a team friendly deal.

To complete one of the better days for the Cowboys in recent free agent memory, the team traded for veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore. The team traded a fifth-round pick, their compensatory selection at 176, for the former Pro Bowler. He’ll be 33-years old in September, but the Cowboys are getting a CB who is coming off a strong season.

Gilmore had a few down years because of injury but returned to his old form in 2022. The former Defensive Player of the Year had two interceptions, including one against the Cowboys, and a team-high 11 passes defensed for the Indianapolis Colts last year.

The Cowboys have had some good cornerback play across from All-Pro CB Trevon Diggs, but Gilmore is on another level. CBs Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis have played well in spurts, but neither is as good, or consistent, as Gilmore.

Gilmore immediately gives the Cowboys one of the better starting CB tandems in the league. With the ability of Dallas’ pass rush to get to the quarterback, Gilmore will shore up one the weaker spots on the roster and it should pay dividends.

The Cowboys lost last year’s other two starting caliber CBs in Brown and Lewis to injury. Brown suffered a torn Achilles injury during the season and his contract is up, while Lewis’ year was lost in Week 7 due to a Lisfranc injury. Lewis is a good slot corner, but he isn’t in the same class as Gilmore, and is a candidate to be released.

Second-year CB DaRon Bland is coming off a stellar rookie season with five interceptions, but he can’t compete with Gilmore yet. Bland is an emerging player and the team bought themselves another year of education for Bland by trading for Gilmore.

With the addition of Gilmore, the secondary in Dallas is now better than they were last season.

The Cowboys’ defense topped the NFL in forced turnovers over each of the last two season and got better on Day 2 of free agency. The potential was there for disaster, but by re-signing two key members of the defense and trading for an established CB, Quinn’s group managed to get better

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