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Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
Arizona | Atlanta | Baltimore | Buffalo | Carolina | Chicago | Cincinnati | Cleveland | Dallas | Denver | Detroit | Green Bay | Houston | Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Kansas City | Las Vegas | LA Chargers | LA Rams | Miami | Minnesota | New England | New Orleans | NY Jets | Pittsburgh | San Francisco | Seattle | Tampa Bay | Tennessee
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The 2022 Cowboys won a playoff game before being ousted from the tournament in round two. It was not the end the organization was looking for, but it was enough to save a coaching staff that was on the hot seat. The defense played a big part in getting them that far.
Opponents were able to run the ball against Dallas. With a middle-of-the-pack average of 4.4 yards per carry and facing the sixth most attempts, the Cowboys ranked 22nd in yards allowed. They stiffened in the red zone though, allowing the third-fewest scores on the ground. The pass defense was good, ranking among the top ten in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and yards surrendered, and finishing fourteenth in passing touchdowns. It was the big play numbers that set them apart, though. Dallas recovered 17 opponent's fumbles, which were four more than anyone else in the league, and their 33 total takeaways were three more than the Patriots at number two. Meanwhile, only the Eagles and Chiefs got to the quarterback for more sacks than the Cowboys, with 54.
This is a unit that entered the offseason without any glaring needs. They added Stephon Gilmore in free agency to bolster the corner position, then used first and third-round picks on defensive tackle Mazi Smith and linebacker DeMarvion Overshown respectively. Smith should be an immediate starter, and Overshown could carve out a role fairly quickly.
Since they had no significant losses in terms of personnel, we can safely assume that Dallas will field a playoff-caliber defense again in 2023. Only time will tell if it's a Super Bowl-caliber unit.
Let's be clear on one thing, Micah Parsons is NOT a defensive end. How do we know this? Because defensive coordinator Dan Quinn told us so back in May, emphasizing that Parsons is "a pass-rushing linebacker." The comment stemmed from a reporter's question about something Parsons himself said earlier, stating that he was adding weight/muscle for his move to defensive end. Okay, Dan, whatever you say. The fact is, Parson lined up at end about 80% of the time in 2022. True Position format resolves this debate for the IDP community. No one can argue that he is an edge defender, and an elite one at that.
Parsons is a fairly rare example of a young pass rusher that needed no transition time between college and the NFL. As a rookie, he racked up 64 tackles, 19 assists, 13 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. His tackle numbers slipped in year two when Parsons saw less action at linebacker, and they are probably not coming back. We may never see another 50 solo tackle seasons from him, but Parsons is 24 years old and has only scratched the surface of his big-play potential.
There was one small downside to Parsons as IDP goes last year, and it was probably a fluke. His thirteen-and-a-half sacks were condensed into eight games. In six of those games, he had two sacks. That translated to IDP scoring as inconsistency, with double-digit points in ten games but six or fewer in the other seven. Don't let that keep you from making Parsons a priority on draft day, This is a guy that will consistently give us 60+ combined tackles and a dozen sacks over the next several years, with the potential to lead the league in sacks a few times along the way.
There is no question about the position of DeMarcus Lawrence. He is a three-down defensive end and a good one. There was a point early in his career when it looked like Lawrence might become one of the elite. In 2017 he put up 58 combined tackles, 15 sacks, and 6 takeaways. He followed that with a mark of 42-21-10 and 4 more turnovers in 2018. Unfortunately, Lawrence has no more than six sacks in any season since.
One contributing factor is that his career has been sprinkled with injuries. He played all seventeen games last year, going 43-22-6 with 4 turnovers, 3 batted passes, and a score. That was enough to rank just outside the top twelve. There is a little upside in the sack column, but last year's numbers are reasonable expectations for Lawrence, who turned 31 years old in April and is signed through the 2024 season.
Interestingly, it was not Lawrence who was second on the team in sacks last season. That honor went to Dorance Armstrong with nine and a half. He entered the league as an undersized fourth-round pick in 2018. At six foot four and 246 pounds, Armstrong was a long but thin pass-rush specialist that struggled to set the edge on running plays. He was not on the field much as a rookie, but his role and production have steadily increased as he has put on muscle and improved as a run defender.
Over the last two seasons, Armstrong is 42-29-14.5 with four turnovers as the third man. He has not yet been able to turn his play versus the run into a strength, but it is no longer such a liability. If he were to get a starter's volume of snaps, he could be an IDP factor.
Armstrong saw the third most action among the team's defensive ends in 2022 at 543 plays. The problem is that Dante Fowler Jr, Sam Williams, and Chauncey Golston also saw action in 237 and 343 plays, so the tackle numbers were spread around. All of those guys are back for 2023, so unless there is an injury, Armstrong is not likely to improve much on last year's totals. One side note to store away, he is set to hit free agency at the end of the season and could be a productive starter for someone next year.
Fowler has been around the league long enough for us to know he is a serviceable veteran player that will never live up to his first-round draft status. Williams and Golston, on the other hand, are young players that could step up over the next year or two. Williams was the team's second-round pick last year, and Golston was a third-rounder in 2021.
It has been a while since Dallas gave us a highly productive interior lineman. Don't make the mistake of thinking first-round pick Mazi Smith is going to break that streak. Smith is quick and athletic for a guy that is six foot three and 323 pounds, but he is going to see a lot of double teams as the one-technique tackle. This will not be new to him after dealing with the same thing as a two-year starter at Michigan, but like many that play the position, Smith's contributions on the field are not the kind that shows up on the stat sheet. In 28 games for the Wolverines, he averaged barely over three combined tackles per game and had half a sack.
The players that stand to gain the most from the addition of Smith are the linebackers working behind him and possibly Osa Odighizuwa at the three-technique position. Odighizuwa earned a starting job and played pretty well as a rookie third-round pick in 2021. He was even better last season when he led the team's interior linemen in both snaps with 615, and production at 27-15-4 with a forced fumble. He finished 36th among interior linemen last year but could fare much better in 2023.
- DE DeMarcus Lawrence – Middle of the road DL2 without much upside
- Edge Micah Parsons – Elite edge defender with the potential to lead the league in sacks
- DE Dorance Armstrong – Breakout pass rusher in 2022 but way light on tackles
- DE Dante Fowler Jr – Marginal impact at best
- DE Sam Williams – Second-year man still in the development stage
- DE Chauncey Golston – No impact
- DT Mazi Smith – No IDP impact expected
- DT Osa Odighizuwa – Roster worth as a DT3 with DT2 upside
- DT Neville Gallimore – No impact
- DT Johnathan Hankins – No impact
- DT Quinton Bohanna – No impact
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