Cowboys going all-in on defense with Wilson, Vander Esch, Gilmore
FRISCO, Texas. For years, the Dallas Cowboys were built on offense. Professional bowlers littered the lineup from quarterbacks to runners, tight ends, receivers, and offensive linemen.
There’s been a change lately, and Tuesday showed just how much the Cowboys think about their defense.
It all began in the morning with the re-signing of defenseman Donovan Wilson to a three-year contract worth up to $24 million and continued into the late afternoon when the Cowboys sent the 176th pick to the Indianapolis Colts as a former Pro Bowl defenseman. Stephon Gilmour and midfielder Leighton Vander Ash had re-signed with the team on a two-year, $11 million contract.
Defense coordinator Dan Quinn must be smiling.
In Wilson and Vander Ashe, the Cowboys retained two of the best players from last season. Wilson was one of only two Dallas defensemen to fill every major statistical category in 2022: sacks, tackles, interceptions, pass breaks, fumble returns, and forced fumbles. Vander Ashe missed the last three games of the regular season with a trapezius injury, but still made 100 tackles, and his absence throughout the game played a large part in the defense’s suffering on the run.
Gilmour solidifies at quarterback against Trevon Diggs, who has won the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons. He had two interceptions for the Colts last season – one against the Cowboys – and remains the best player in the standings despite being 32 years old.
This is the kind of move that can put defense first. At NFL Scouting, I asked Executive Vice President Stephen Jones if the Cowboys felt the need to make a move in the spirit of Deion Sanders, remembering that a future Hall of Famer cornerback was added to those Super Bowl teams in 1994.
“Any time you can add a great player, you should look into it,” Jones said. “We have been doing this for many years. I mean we exchanged [first-round picks]How [with] Amari [Cooper]. We traded them for Joey Galloway and Roy Williams and paid Deion big money. I mean, we’ve done similar things in the past. It’s not that we’re against it. We have to believe that this is the right move for our team at the time.”
Gilmour isn’t a Sanders in his prime, but he’s bringing the Cowboys something they weren’t going to get by keeping Anthony Brown (returning from a torn Achilles), a late first-round pick, or even signing another free agent.
He inspires confidence that the Cowboys didn’t have in their second cornerback, probably going back to when Anthony Henry played opposite Terence Newman from 2004 to 2006. If not Henry and Newman, then this is the 2009 Newman and Mike Jenkins pairing. , who both made the Pro Bowl that season. Along with Daron Bland, who led the Cowboys with five interceptions last season, the Cowboys have a strong trio that will be even stronger if Jordan Lewis recovers from Lisfranc’s injury.
The Cowboys are hoping they can keep the defense of Dante Fowler Jr., who had six sacks in 343 defensive snaps last season. If they do, their pass rush will consist of Mick Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, Fowler and Sam Williams. In 2022, the Cowboys had 54 sacks, third in the league and Dallas’ highest defense since 2008.
They have Vander Ash paired up with Damon Clarke as a midfielder, but they will probably need to add more to that position.
The secondary player returns Wilson, Jaron Kears and Malik Hooker to safety along with the aforementioned cornerbacks. Last season, the Cowboys led the NFL in rushes with 33, a year after leading the league with 34 rushes.
In 2023, they could rival the Steel Curtain with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the last team to lead the NFL in slugging for three consecutive seasons (1972–74).