‘A basketball team’: Cowboys' NFL draft haul foreshadows defensive remake under Dan Quinn

Jori Epstein
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FRISCO, Texas — When the Cowboys made their final and whopping 11th selection of the 2021 NFL draft, a few takeaways crystallized in clarity.

Returning defenders will face competition.

Ballhawks are welcome in North Texas.

And the defenders coming for veterans’ jobs, in classic Dan Quinn form, will be long.

“A basketball team,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joked of his draft class that averages 6-foot-3 and 7/8 inches. “It’s that long.”

Quinn looks the other way when identified as the culprit.

The first-year Cowboys coordinator joined Dallas after he was fired as Falcons head coach partway through the 2020 season. He spent the interim months—he was fired Oct. 11 after Atlanta dropped to 0-5—combing through film and asking former players and coaches: What didn’t work? What did? Systems and schemes, Quinn said Saturday, were remolded rather than just “rinse and repeat.” But the traits that carry through his history coaching in the league appeared consistently in the Cowboys’ draft selections this weekend.

“The bigger, the faster, the longer that we can play, the more aggressive we will be,” Quinn said Saturday from the Star, in his first public comments since hired. “Because we like to play certainly in a bold style. So, having guys with length and speed and run-and-hit factor—that's a big part of it."

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Micah Persons (Penn State) with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected by the Dallas Cowboys as the number 12 overall pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft at First Energy Stadium.

The Cowboys launched their draft with Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons at pick 12 after their coveted corners, Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain, flew off the board immediately before Dallas was on the clock. And yet, by draft’s end, the Cowboys had selected three new college cornerbacks in Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph (Round 2, pick 44), Oregon State’s Nahshon Wright (3, 99) and South Carolina’s Israel Mukuamu (6, 227). At least one—Mukuamu is the early favorite—will likely see work at the Cowboys’ perennially underinvested safety position, but a bevy of new options have now arrived. 

Legion of Boom remake?

Several rookies said they understood what to expect from a Quinn defense.

“We’re both physical against tall receivers, and we’re smart,” Joseph said Friday night. “We’re playmakers, so we’re just going to put our techniques together and learn from each other.

“We’re fixing to do a lot of damage.”

Quinn fielded the questions: Can he recapture the Legion of Boom-caliber defense from his days coordinating Seattle? What about Cowboys fans who remember the Falcons’ dreaded Super Bowl loss after a 28-3 lead? Does Quinn envision Parsons’ role, likely pressuring in blitz packages while still being expected to cover, as the next iteration of Seattle’s Bruce Irvin and Atlanta’s Vic Beasley?

“I don’t want to say he’s like a Bobby (Wagner) or a Vic (Beasley) or this,” Quinn said. “He'll see plenty of tape of players that I've coached at different spots, but I think it's important for a player to develop their own identity and their own unique stuff.

“I want Micah’s identity to be Micah.”

The Cowboys’ drafted cornerbacks may come to learn that lesson. But at least the 6-4, 185-pound Wright hasn’t caught on yet. After rounding out Dallas’ five top-100 picks, Wright told reporters he considers himself a “more athletic and agile Richard Sherman.”

“Just his ability to slow the game down and kind of see all the pieces come together before the play even starts,” Wright said of the corner who stacked two of his three straight All-Pro seasons under Quinn’s tutelage. “We’re going to bring some life. More turnovers. And we’ll definitely get us to a championship.”

The turnovers will continue to be an emphasis under McCarthy, who emphasized the ratio repeatedly in 2020 even as the Cowboys ranked among the worst in the league until the final two months of the season. Their 2020 draft class brings secondary ballhawks in Joseph (team-high four INTs in 2020), Wright (five INTs last two seasons) and Mukuamu (team-high four in 2019, his last full season). Parsons and Cox disrupted from the linebacker positions, including Parsons’ four forced fumbles during his final college season in 2019 (he opted out of 2020).

Each of these experiences, of course, must be replicated and ideally augmented in the club. Quinn’s ready to get to work developing a new crop of Cowboys, eager to leave the bad taste of the franchise’s 2020 defense in the past. The task is tall for a team that ranked second-worst against the run (158.8 rushing yards allowed) and allowed the fourth-most points (29.6) in the league. The Cowboys targeted defensive linemen this weekend as well in UCLA defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa (Round 3, pick 75); Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston (3, 84); and Kentucky defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna (6, 192). Bohanna included in his stated goals a desire to “just be a part of trying to correct things in the run game.”

The search for superpowers

The busted gaps and blown coverages of 2020 are no secret.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t need to send any messages,” Jerry Jones said of the blatant skew toward an eight-defender draft class. “It was pretty well known where we might need to do some addressing.”

Defensive coordinator was among those spots when scheme, development and teaching broke down at times in 2020. Quinn knew the variables when signing on with the Cowboys but insists he likes “to do hard [expletive] with a group of people more than anything.” System development, he says, has featured collaboration from his players, defensive staff and McCarthy’s offensive-minded guidance. “You can feel their intensity,” Quinn said of defensive meetings with Cowboys veterans. “Now, how much can they relentlessly compete over the next six or seven weeks to put this package together?”

The competition got a little more crowded this weekend. Quinn says he, too, must now prove himself.

“Having players with the skill sets, now it's up to us,” Quinn said. “All the unique things that a player has, now you want to put him a position where he can utilize those things.

“I'm looking forward to finding out what some of those superpowers are.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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