Scheme or Scam: Dallas Cowboys

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In 2020 Dynasty Football Factory launched a series titled “Schemes Are Ch-Ch-Changing”. Each edition of the series explored how a new defensive coordinator would affect defenders as fantasy assets. The David Bowie song “Changes” would roll through my head as I started each article.   

I admit it; by the sixth or seventh article, I began to cringe at the title. I reached out to the team at DFF for ideas. Thus, I give you “Scheme or Scam.” 

The premise remains. I will investigate for each article how a new defensive scheme will deploy defenders and how that will translate to fantasy value. I write about this because it’s information I sought out and could not find when I began playing IDP fantasy football just a few years ago. 

The simplest example was a change from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 base defense or vice versa. Despite thorough adoption of internet-based publishing and social media, sites dedicated to fantasy football took weeks to break the news of seemingly certain changes to players’ position designations to subscribers (e.g., me). 

Similarly, a strong safety was once a much more productive fantasy asset than a free safety. The strong safety was reliably the player who would supplement run defense while the free safety stayed back (the proverbial last line of defense).

Going into 2021, nearly every team has embraced multiple fronts and “positionless football.” Divining between 3-4 and 4-3 fronts has become futile. (Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped fantasy football platforms from hiring someone to analyze hours of tape to split hairs between edge defenders’ roles.) 

More teams are disguising coverages rather than committing a safety to the box. These two evolutions require a new level of attention to player deployment if we are to discern which to target in upcoming fantasy football drafts and trades. 

My approach is to find readily available football analysis and attempt to translate it for fantasy gamers. While national coverage of defensive football is sparse, every NFL market has knowledgeable journalists and commentators whose full-time job is to follow the team and report their findings. 

A journalist’s assessment of his team’s outlook is unrelentingly sunny, but his reporting of defenders’ alignments on-field is analytical. His projections of player deployment into the season are at least highly educated guesses. His theories can be tested against the practices he attends from OTAs to training camp and revised appropriately.

Football-hungry Dallas might boast the nation’s most committed media to its NFL franchise. The Cowboys are, after all, the league’s most valuable franchise. John Owning of the Dallas Morning News is one of the best. He’ll watch tape of a free-agent signee for hours and stay up into the night to document his findings in an article for publication the next morning. He’s a resource for any football fan, not just that of the Cowboys.

There’s no substitute for the insights coaches and players offer into their deployment. Of course, they are not open books either. The information they share could be partial or even misleading. 

When new Cowboy Keanu Neal and his defensive coordinator Dan Quinn advise us that he’s now a linebacker after several years of playing safety, are they giving us insight into their defensive scheme? Or is this a scam? Might Neal simply start at safety against the Buccaneers in the first game of the NFL season and slide into a dime linebacker role with which he’s familiar from his time under Quinn in Atlanta? 

2021 Dallas Cowboys

“America’s Team” hired former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn to serve as its defensive coordinator for 2021. Quinn made his name coordinating the Seahawks’ famous “Legion of Boom” defenses in back-to-back Super Bowls following the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He parlayed this success into a five-year run as the Falcons’ head coach. He reached another Super Bowl but was never able to replicate the success of the Legion of Boom. 

The 4-3-under/Cover-3 defense Quinn ran spread throughout the league under the arms of former Seahawks assistants. It became the decade’s signature defense much like the “Tampa-2” had in the first decade of this century.

NFL defenses have historically been designed to stop the run first. Dan Quinn’s defense does so by assigning one defender for each gap in the offensive line. 

When two tight ends are on the field, the strong safety accounts for the seventh gap. Subsequently, Quinn’s base coverage relies on its four second-level defenders to account for the run and drop into an intermediate zone (image from 

As implementation of Cover-3 became widespread, offensive coordinators solved it. This scheme stresses linebackers responding to play-action and run-pass options. 

Quinn understands this, of course. He tried in 2019 and 2020 to implement 3-4 packages into his Falcons defenses but without on-field success. His base defense has always closely resembled a 3-4 with the now-famous LEO (left defensive end outside) standing up wide outside of the exposed offensive tackle.

The man who hired Quinn, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, dismisses the significance of the Cowboys moving to a 3-4 scheme, which is seen by some as the reason for the failure and firing of Mike Nolan after one year coordinating the Cowboys defense. Their personnel is not much better suited to running a 3-4 defense than they were last season. 

The distinction between Dan Quinn’s previous defenses vs. the one that he’s installing in Dallas will be increased use of split safeties according to the aforementioned John Owning and from, David Howman. Quinn started to move in the direction of split safeties in 2020 after hiring former Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton as an advisor. Subtle changes to Quinn’s front seven reduced the need to bring a safety into the box for the intermediate zone and run support.  

Keanu Neal has been the safety Quinn has deployed close to the line of scrimmage for five years. Neal may be practicing at linebacker because his role has been eliminated from the defense. Quinn also has experience repurposing safeties as linebackers in Atlanta – Kemal Ishmael and Foye Oluokun.

Cowboys Fantasy IDPs

Now that we developed an understanding of how players could be used in the Cowboys defense, we can address its implications for fantasy football. Thankfully, it’s much less complicated! 


The Cowboys’ safety group is perenially thin, and 2021 is no different. The two most accomplished players in the room and expected starters are Donovan Wilson and Damontae Kazee. Wilson broke out in his sophomore year in 2020, and Kazee came over from Atlanta with Dan Quinn. 

Both players have proven functional in all three phases of safety play – deep, slot, and box. Neither is a plus in any phase but their interchangeability should aid Quinn in his efforts to disguise coverages. 

Only one split safety, All-Pro Justin Simmons, finished among the top-scoring fantasy defensive backs of 2020 per Wilson and Kazee should be replacement-level fantasy producers in 2021 and are not worth drafting. 



Dan Quinn’s defenses have historically leaned on long, rangy cornerbacks with ball skills to hold up with just one safety over the top while playing the ball aggressively. This approach has afforded the cover men ample opportunities to collect pass break-ups as well as tackles. The scheme dares quarterbacks to attack its cornerbacks in the seams of the zone; whereas, more conservative coverage would dissuade challenges from opposing quarterbacks. 

The Cowboys and Falcons defenses have both struggled to get off the field in recent years. High snap counts and little help outside propelled Atlanta’s AJ Terrell and Dallas’s Trevon Diggs to top-20 finishes among cornerbacks in fantasy points per game in 2020. Diggs is a  reasonable bet to repeat as a starting-caliber fantasy CB in 2021.


Few teams have invested as disproportionately in the linebacker position in recent years as the Cowboys. The result is a room full of brand names in the fantasy community. 

It’s possible that the Cowboys consistently play three off-ball linebackers like the 2018 Jaguars or 2019 Seahawks to get Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Micah Parsons on the field together, but there’s little evidence in Dan Quinn’s history as a defensive coordinator to establish that premise. 

The current first-rounder Parsons and the former first-rounder Vander Esch appear to be competing for the middle linebacker spot in OTAs. Smith, the $68-million man, is up against Keanu Neal for snaps in the WILL role (weak-side LB).

The team declined Vander Esch’s fifth-year option, so Parsons should play ahead of the veteran in a full-time role unless 2021’s 12th overall pick displays unexpected deficiencies. Parsons could open up a few snaps for Vander Esch by joining DeMarcus Lawrence on the strong-side edge for pass-rush combinations; however, writers often have more zeal for such an arrangement than most NFL coaches.

It seems absurd that Neal, who hasn’t played linebacker since high school, could beat out Jaylon Smith for a starting WILL role. Smith’s struggles in pass coverage are well documented, however, while Neal has played a dime linebacker role for incoming Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn for years. Observers disagree if Smith’s struggles in run defense were primarily on him or on former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in 2020. 

Dallas’s front office didn’t pay Neal $4 million this year to watch. He’ll earn more than a typical rotational linebacker. It’s reasonable to expect Smith to play ahead of Neal in base but lose snaps to the former Falcon in sub-packages. Without full-time roles, both should be avoided for purposes of fantasy football.

Micah Parsons, meanwhile, is a strong candidate to finish as an LB2. Two Falcons linebackers finished among the top-20-scoring fantasy linebackers in 2020.

Edge Defenders

IDP fantasy gamers who play in conventional-position leagues (DT/DE/LB or DL/LB) might have stopped short upon reading that Dan Quinn will deploy a base 3-4. The Lions coaching staff has said the same, but analysts who feed depth charts to fantasy football platforms don’t seem to believe Cowboys coaches McCarthy and Quinn. The DE tags on DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory appear safe. Like every other team, Dallas will play an even front in the nickel defense, and that will be its most common set.

Perennially underrated Lawrence is a strong DE2 or EDGE2 target with upside. Gregory, who has a lower floor for compiling tackles in run defense, is a lower-end DE2 or EDGE3 who is nearly free in fantasy leagues. 

Defensive Linemen

The dearth of talent in the Cowboys’ defensive line virtually guarantees that no fantasy value will arise from it. Youngsters Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa are third-round picks in 2020 and 2021, respectively, who need development. Both have upside for deep dynasty leagues but can be ignored in seasonal leagues.

Personnel Packages

The Cowboys defenders still look like they have been assembled to man the pure 4-3-under fronts Rod Marinelli lived and died by from 2014 to 2019. It takes some imagination to envision how they will be deployed in the sub-packages that Dan Quinn plans for 2021. It’s in these sub-packages that presumptive “starters” will lose snaps and suffer lost fantasy value.

3-4 Base Defense

First, an image from Quinn’s time in Atlanta, then a graphic envisioning how Cowboys personnel fit.

4-3-Under Nickel

2020 Falcons… 

2021 Cowboys (projected)

Bear Front

2020 Falcons… 

2021 Cowboys (projected)

In Conclusion

The Cowboys’ defense in 2021 looks set to be a happy medium between 2019’s starkly simple Marinelli rendition and 2020’s overwrought Nolan version. The football question: Will it be happy for Cowboys fans? As one myself, I’m gritting my teeth. 

The two defenses have the same problems – lacking playmakers at the third level and along the defensive line. These deficiencies could dampen the outlook of Dallas’s pass-rushers while raising the ceiling for Micah Parsons and the cornerbacks as compilers of tackles.

In Parting

I thank those of you who have endured this look under the hood of my process to untangle fantasy value in NFL defenses! I hope you’ll accept my invitation to discuss these conclusions on Twitter @DynastyTripp. Future editions of “Scheme or Scam” will be shorter; I promise to cut to the chase  – the pursuit of IDP fantasy football! 

Clemson and Michigan alum…Panthers and Cowboys fan…I try to see both sides of every debate and each trade. Find me on Twitter @DynastyTripp.




IDP & Dynasty writer and explorer of ideas for @DFF_Dynasty. #DFFArmy #IDP #DynastyFootball #FFIDP #IDPSharkTank. Always be learning!

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