Dallas Cowboys' offseason full of change for their defense

The Dallas Cowboys ended their offseason program on June 15. Here’s a look at how they fared:

Offseason goals/grade: Coming off a 13-3 season, the Cowboys knew this would be an offseason marked by change on defense. They lost seven starters or key contributors to their defense in Barry Church, Brandon Carr, Terrell McClain, Morris Claiborne, J.J. Wilcox and Jack Crawford to free agency and did not make any major free-agent additions. The club’s reasoning was that it needed new blood for a defense that had been somewhat stagnant. They are hoping for improvement from Jaylon Smith (last year’s No. 2 pick who didn’t play as a rookie) and are banking on the growth of other young players. The Cowboys have altered their construction process in recent years, moving away from high-priced free agents and older players and focusing on developing players through the draft. With two division titles in three years, the plan seems to be working. Grade: B minus

Move I liked: Drafting Taco Charlton was a positive step in rebuilding the defensive line. They used first-round picks to rebuild the offensive line in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. They made second-round moves to address their pass rush in recent years through the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, but they have relied more on low-cost and late-round pickups to fill in gaps. Charlton’s sack totals increased every year while at Michigan. He play with more leverage and strength than speed and quickness, but still figures to be a big part of the pass-rush rotation. He might never be a DeMarcus Ware, but if he is another Greg Ellis, the Cowboys certainly would take that.

Move I didn’t like: While Jeff Heath has shown flashes of ability in limited playing time, replacing Church will be difficult. He had four straight seasons with at least 100 tackles. He was a defensive captain, played special teams and was around the ball. The Cowboys could have gone to him before last season with a new deal, or made a stronger pitch to keep him off the market as free agency approached -- but didn’t. Church, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars, wasn’t a high-end safety but he meant more to the Cowboys’ success than the coaches want to believe. He was not a progress-stopper.

Biggest question still to be answered in training camp: Since we know what the offense will look like, it has to be the pass rush. There was no way of truly knowing how improved it might be in offseason practices conducted without pads. The Cowboys do not have the alpha dog-type pass-rusher they had for years in Ware, but they believe they have enough to affect opposing quarterbacks more than they did a year ago. The addition of Charlton should help, as should a healthier Tyrone Crawford and Lawrence. A second year in the system should help Benson Mayowa, who led the Cowboys with six sacks in 2016. Maliek Collins had five sacks as a rookie, and a player’s biggest jump usually comes in his second year. David Irving is looking at a suspension, but he was their best defensive lineman down the stretch last season and should improve. The Cowboys have the pieces to mount a successful pass rush, but they lack a lineman who could truly scare an offense.

Salary cap space: $16,950,774 (source: Overthcap.com)

2017 draft picks: 1. DE Taco Charlton; 2. CB Chidobe Awuzie; 3. CB Jourdan Lewis; 4. WR Ryan Switzer; 6. S Xavier Woods; 6. CB Marquez White; 7. DT Joey Ivie; 7. WR Noah Brown; 7 DT Jordan Carrell

Undrafted rookie free agents: QB Cooper Rush; RB Jahad Thomas; WR Brian Brown; WR Lance Lenoir; TE Blake Jarwin; OT Dan Skipper; OG Nate Theaker; DT Lewis Neal; DE Woody Baron; LB Darnell Leslie; LB Joseph Jones, LB Lucas Wacha; LB Keenan Gilchrist

Unrestricted free agents signed: CB Nolan Carroll II; S Robert Blanton; DT Stephen Paea; DE Damontre Moore; OL Byron Bell

Restricted free agents signed: None

Players acquired via trade: None