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Cowboys Camp: Predicting 53-Man Roster - Defense

The first practice is Thursday and the first padded practice isn't until July 28 and we have no idea what to expect of the Cowboys' defense.

OXNARD, Calif. - The Dallas Cowboys' offense will be under scrutiny all this summer and for the 2021 NFL season based on what it is expected to do.

The Cowboys defense, starting with today's Tuesday arrival of the team here in Oxnard for training camp? It'll be under scrutiny based on all the things it too-rarely does.

The first practice is Thursday and the first padded practice isn't until July 28 and we have no idea what to expect of the Cowboys' defense this summer or this season. Therefore, our 53-man roster predictions as we approach this week's camp start here are ...

Confounding.

Incomplete.

Questionable.

To wit ...

Defensive line (Will they keep 11?)

DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Tarell Basham are easy answers at defensive end. (We say that even though Gregory himself is now confirming what we reported last year, that head coach Mike McCarthy and staff couldn't quite figure out how to play him more. Read here.)

We will guess that Neville Gallimore and Brent Urban are relatively easy answers at tackle.

But beyond that? Will the new Dan Quinn-led defensive staff like holdover Dorance Armstrong as much as the coaches did last year? Will they stiff Bradlee Anae like they did last year? Will they discover if Trysten Hill can (or cannot) play?

READ MORE: Dallas Cowboys Roster: How Many Rookies Make It?

That's eight guys. Do you keep three rookie D-linemen in Chauncey Golston, Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna? If so, that's 11, and that means that it might come down to Anae vs. newcomer vet Carlos Watkins as to who gets squeezed.

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Linebacker (Are these just 5 big names?)

Wanna sound good on paper? Read off the names "Micah Parsons,'' "Leighton Vander Esch,'' "Jaylon Smith,'' "Keanu Neal'' and "Jabril Cox'' while also reviewing their pedigrees. These are all "Pro Bowlers'' or "first-round talents'' or "hand-picked Quinn guys.''

Impressive.

On paper.

The fact is, the carryovers underperformed and still, in 2020, kids like Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford never got much of a shot at playing time.

We think we know that Dallas wants Micah to be the MIKE, Vander Esch to be the WILL and Jaylon to be the SAM. And if those three play up to their own expectations? Dallas won't field one of the poorest defenses in franchise history again in 2021.

Defensive back (10 To Turnovers?)

"Turnover'' is two senses of the word here. "Takeaways,'' of course. But also major changes in who's who under new coordinator Quinn. Maybe the only position truly settled is at one cornerback, with Trevon Diggs. The other cornerback starter? Could be rookie Kelvin Joseph, or vet Anthony Brown, or re-signed vet Jourdan Lewis (though he figures in the slot).

At safety? Probably, newcomer Damontae Kazee wins the job next to Donovan Wilson, maybe by default. But how much better is Dallas, really, if that's all that happens?

C.J. Goodwin gets a job here due to special-teams excellence. But from there is where "trying to get better'' becomes trying. "Better'' would mean rookies Nahshon Wright (at corner) and Israel Mukuamu (a corner moving to safety) have a shot. "Better'' might mean second-year man Reggie Robinson (jerked around back here but now being told he's a corner). That'd be 10, and it leaves out two journeyman, newcomer Jayron Kearse and holdover Darian Thompson.

Add the three specialists, kicker Greg Zuerlein, snapper Jake McQuaide and punter Bryan Anger (beating out Hunter Niswander) and you get to 53. But on defense? You also still get "questionable.''

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