Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn isn’t the only significant new piece for a Dallas defense that was among the worst in franchise history last year.
First-round draft pick Micah Parsons’ speed is stoking the imagination of the former Atlanta coach, who will also have one of his safeties with the Falcons joining Parsons as free agent pickup Keanu Neal transitions to linebacker.
Rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright could challenge for playing time at cornerback, where Maurice Canady is having a strong training camp in his Dallas debut after signing with the Cowboys and opting out because of COVID-19 a year ago.
“I’ve never seen one side of the ball flip the way we’ve flipped it in one offseason,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think that’s a real credit to what we were able to do in free agency and in the draft. I think it will definitely be evident when we get into the regular season.”
The biggest question is what Quinn will do with the new pieces — and old ones — as he returns to the role he had with Seattle in 2013-14, when the Seahawks went to consecutive Super Bowls and won the first by smothering Denver’s Peyton Manning.
McCarthy hired Mike Nolan to run the defense in his first season with the Cowboys, who were a mess of blown assignments and couldn’t stop the run while giving up the most points in club history.
Exit Nolan. Enter Quinn, whose first shot as a head coach — he was fired following Week 5 last year after leading the Falcons to the Super Bowl during the 2016 season — was a result of his success as Seattle’s defensive coordinator.
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“During my time there, I had a vision of how we liked to play and make that come to life,” Quinn said. “Through my time in Atlanta and even through last year, you have some experiences to draw back on.
“I would say, a lot of the formula would feel the same. I wouldn’t say a lot of the calls are exactly the same. The process of how to get there, that part feels very familiar.”
The Cowboys are a long way from a defense with the likes of Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner, some of the stars for Quinn’s last defense in Seattle. It seems unlikely Dallas will get there with the current roster.
Still, Parsons has the attention of star quarterback Dak Prescott, who marveled at the former Penn State standout’s skills on the first episode of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” after Parsons intercepted one of his passes. He’ll be rushing the passer, too.
“There’s a lot of different things and disguises when I’m coming, I’m not coming, when I’m dropping back, when I’m over the center, when I’m over the guard, could be over the tackle,” Parsons said. “I think (Quinn) is going to help me do a good job of knowing how to do it, how to propose for it, and you also can’t play pass all the time, so, you got to be able to play run.”
Randy Gregory is finally getting the chance to be a first-team pass rusher opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, although neither has played so far in the preseason and might not get in a game before seeing Tom Brady in the Sept. 9 opener at Tampa Bay.
Parsons and Neal are challenging incumbents Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, whose contracts leave both with murky futures beyond this season.
Second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs will start, while Canady, Joseph and Wright are in the mix with holdovers Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis to fill the other side and the slot position. Malik Hooker was a late add in training camp after four injury-filled years in Indianapolis for the 2017 first-round pick.
Donovan Wilson emerged as a starting safety during the 2020 season, and most likely will be joined on the back end by another of Quinn’s former Atlanta players, Damontae Kazee.
“Not everybody is qualified to do all the jobs especially when you’re playing matchup defense where you want to guard a guy and play him man to man,” Quinn said. “I think when you go through the regular season and postseason, it’s not rinse and repeat in every game.”
The Cowboys were much better at creating turnovers last year than the previous few, but that was overshadowed by blown assignments in the passing game and inability to stop the run.
Quinn sidesteps questions about last year because he wasn’t on the Dallas staff. The holdovers leave little doubt about his message, though.
“He’s a guy that’s going to give us the truth,” Smith said. “He’s going to give every individual the truth and as a man you can respect that and appreciate that. It’s consistent.”