FRISCO, Texas — For years, the Dallas Cowboys have been built on offense. Pro Bowlers littered the lineup from quarterbacks to running backs to tight ends to receivers to offensive linemen.
Lately there has been a switch, and Tuesday showed just how much the Cowboys think about their defense.
It started in the morning with the re-signing of safety Donovan Wilson to a three-year deal worth up to $24 million; continued in the late afternoon when the Cowboys sent the 176th pick of the draft to the Indianapolis Colts for former Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore; and by dinnertime, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch re-signed with the team on a two-year deal worth $11 million.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn must be smiling.
In Wilson and Vander Esch, the Cowboys retained their top two tacklers from last season. Wilson was one of two Dallas defenders to fill every major statistical category in 2022: sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions, pass breakups, fumble recoveries and forced fumbles. Vander Esch missed the final three regular-season games due to a trapezius injury but still managed 100 tackles, and his absence down the stretch played a big part in the suffering of the run defense.
Gilmore shores up the cornerback spot opposite Trevon Diggs, who has made the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons. He had two interceptions last season with the Colts — one came against the Cowboys — and he remains a top man-to-man corner despite being 32.
It’s the sort of move that can put a defense over the top. At the NFL scouting combine, I asked executive vice president Stephen Jones if the Cowboys felt the need to make a Deion Sanders-type move, recalling the 1994 addition of the future Hall of Fame cornerback to those Super Bowl teams.
“Anytime you can add a great player, you got to look at it,” Jones said. “We’ve done it over the years. I mean we’ve traded [first round picks], just like [with] Amari [Cooper]. We traded ones for Joey Galloway and Roy Williams and paid big money to Deion. I mean we’ve done things like this in the past. It’s not like we’re averse to it. We got to believe it’s the right move for our team in that point in time.”
Gilmore isn’t an in-his-prime Sanders, but he brings the Cowboys something they were not going to get from keeping Anthony Brown (returning from a torn Achilles), a late first-round pick or even another free agent signing.
He brings a credibility the Cowboys have not had in their second cornerback probably going all the way back to when Anthony Henry played across from Terence Newman from 2004 to 2006. If not Henry and Newman, then it is the 2009 pairing of Newman and Mike Jenkins, who both made the Pro Bowl that season. With DaRon Bland, who led the Cowboys with five interceptions last season, the Cowboys have a strong trio, which would grow even stronger if Jourdan Lewis can come back from a Lisfranc injury.
The Cowboys are hopeful they can keep defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who had six sacks in 343 defensive snaps a season ago. If they do, their pass rush would consist of Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Fowler and Sam Williams. In 2022, the Cowboys had 54 sacks, tied for third in the league and the most by a Dallas defense since 2008.
At linebacker, they have Vander Esch paired with Damone Clark but probably will need to add more to the position.
The secondary returns Wilson, Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker at safety with the aforementioned cornerbacks. Last season, the Cowboys led the NFL in takeaways with 33, one year after leading the league with 34 takeaways.
In 2023, they can match the Steel Curtain Pittsburgh Steelers, who are the last team to lead the NFL in takeaways in three straight seasons (1972-74)