The Dallas Cowboys have been trying to get younger and better on defense for a while.
In 2014, they had three picks in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft, two were on defense in end DeMarcus Lawrence in the second round and linebacker Anthony Hitchens in the fourth.
In 2015, three of their four picks in the first four rounds were defenders, led by safety Byron Jones in the first round, end Randy Gregory in the second and linebacker Damien Wilson in the fourth.
Even the impactful draft of 2016, which included running back Ezekiel Elliott in the first and quarterback Dak Prescott in the fourth, featured three of five picks in the first four rounds on defense. Linebacker Jaylon Smith, tackle Maliek Collins and end Charles Tapper were picked between Elliott and Prescott.
And then came the bonanza in 2017 when they had a defense-heavy draft with seven of nine picks on that side of the ball, including end Taco Charlton, cornerback Chido Awuzie and cornerback Jourdan Lewis in the first three rounds, respectively.
So the commitment in terms of resources has been made.
What the Cowboys, ,who open the season Sunday night against the New York Giants, need now is for it to result in high-end production.
Charlton and Awuzie will get opportunities to make immediate impacts.
The Cowboys haven’t had a double-digit pass rusher since Jason Hatcher notched 11 in 2013, an outlier after Hatcher combined for just 16 sacks in his previous seven years.
They haven’t had a true elite pass rusher since future Hall of Fame defensive end DeMarcus Ware left in 2013 following an injury-shortened final season here.
It’s not lost on Cowboys fans that Ware, in 2005, was the last defensive end picked in the first round until Charlton was selected in 2017.
Charlton – or anyone else – would be hard-pressed to match Ware’s production, which ended with 138 sacks. Charlton was picked 28th, while Ware was picked 11th, which speaks to the expectations.
Charlton was drafted to impact the pass rush. So the pressure is on the 6-foot-6, 273-pound Michigan man to deliver.
“[Charlton] is a pass-rush guy to get to the quarterback and that’s what we need,” defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said. “Just being 100 percent honest, we need a guy that can get to the quarterback. We’ve got guys that can stop the run. We’ve got men.
“I’m not saying Taco is not a man, but I’m saying we got men and he’s going to stop the run as well. But he’s good at getting to the quarterback and we’re going to use that and see what we can do with him.”
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Charlton can rush from both end positions as well as inside from the tackle spot. And while it took him a while to blossom at Michigan – he didn’t start until his senior season – he believes he can make a quick impact in Dallas.
“I believe in my ability,” Charlton said. “I know what I can do. I have a great defensive line coach and am going against some of the best offensive linemen every day, so they’re pushing at me to be the best also.
“Like I said, I believe in my abilities. I believe I can come in there and contribute and help this defensive line. Help this defense out and help us win games.”
It’s a must for Charlton and the Cowboys, whose need at the position has been complicated by NFL suspensions of defensive ends David Irving (four games) and Damontre Moore (two games) to begin the season.
The need for immediate impacts from Awuzie and possibly Lewis might be even greater in the secondary following the departures of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and safeties J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church.
What the Cowboys lost in experience, they gained in youth, speed and athleticism. More important, they have guys who are better and more physical fits for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s cover 2 scheme.
Marinelli believes it will result in more interceptions and forced fumbles if their play in training camp is an indicator.
“It’s a great sign,” Marinelli said. “[Chidobe Awuzie] and some of the younger players really have good ball skills. Some we’re kind of looking at the ball skill and being able to make the interceptions; instincts. And the one thing I’ve been pleased with all those young guys is they all hit. And that’s something you look for in the secondary. You’ve got to get guys who can hit because you can say you’re a physical defense, but if your corners don’t hit, you’re not. You can say you’re a hustle and pursuit defense, but if your down guys don’t, then you’re not. You can’t kind of BS yourself.”
Awuzie’s has already emerged as one of the top three cornerbacks on the team behind Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown.
But his physicality, versatility and smarts are allowing the Cowboys to get him on the field in several packages on passing downs.
The positions include the weakside corner, the strong corner, the weakside linebacker and safety.
“I have been moving around a little bit,” Awuzie said. “The focus is wide right now. I have to learn at least five or six positions in the secondary and a little bit of dime as the weakside backer so I have been trying to take it all in. They know I moved around in college and was able to succeed from various positions. They are just trying to implement [that] over here.”
Most important, he will be allowed to play close to the line of scrimmage, cover the tight end and blitz, enabling Jones to use his athleticism to play a true free safety.
It should result in more takeaways, starting with Charlton helping the pass rush and Awuzie bringing more physicality to the secondary, allowing Jones to be the ball hawk.
The Cowboys had just nine interceptions last year, one of six teams with fewer than 10.
“That’s our No. 1 objective on defense,” secondary coach Joe Baker said. “We graded ourselves as sort of middle of the pack in terms of our turnover production. We expect to be A-plus in that area. We want to crank those numbers up.”