The Cowboys have the best defense in the NFC East

We can be honest about it. The Philadelphia Eagles were very good in 2023. In fact, the Eagles may have had the best team across the entire season last year. Part of what is great (and miserable) about football is that you can be the best team for 99% of an entire season, but if Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs manage to take over, then it is all for not and you are left with nothing substantial to remember it by.

While the Eagles were very good in 2023, so were the Dallas Cowboys. The teams won a combined 25 games in the regular season and three playoff games between them, although Dallas failed to set up an NFC Championship Game matchup that would have set the world on fire.

When you compare these two teams many people focus on the quarterbacks which is strange given that we have only seen a game between Dak Prescott’s Cowboys and Jalen Hurts’ Eagles once (Dallas won that game handily in early 2021). Obviously that is some low-hanging fruit, but these teams both have much more than talented quarterbacks. There are talented offensive pieces around the signal-callers but also very good defenses.

It was defense that took center stage on this week’s episode of the NFC East Mixtape between Brandon Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation and myself. A reminder that you can listen to the Mixtape every week on the Blogging The Boys podcast network along with all of our other shows that we have around here. Make sure to subscribe to our network wherever you get your podcasts, Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

The reason defense was on our minds was because we put together an All-Star defensive group within the division and as you can imagine there were plenty of Cowboys players who earned a spot.

Here is our group.

Defensive Line: Micah Parsons, Haason Reddick, Dexter Lawrence, Daron Payne

We settled on Parsons and Reddick as our pass rushers because the former is arguably the best one in the entire NFL and the latter had a ton of sacks last year. There are certainly small cases for other players to make it, but if we can only have two then the conversation really is a simple one.

Along the interior Dexter Lawrence had an amazing season for the New York Giants last year putting together a career year with 7.5 sacks. There is a case to be made that he is the best player on New York’s roster altogether, but that isn’t exactly saying much.

Payne narrowly edged out Jonathan Allen in my mind but did have the better season last year so it is fair to reward him like the Washington Commanders actually did with a brand new deal. Hopefully Mazi Smith is a factor in this conversation a year from now.

Linebackers: Leighton Vander Esch and Bobby Okereke

We built this team in the way that made the most sense which meant that we only carried two linebackers, and while we are the subject of the position allow me to ask a question to the group:

Is Leighton Vander Esch the best off-ball linebacker in the NFC East?

The answer seems like a very obvious yes, and while that might sound a bit homer-ish at first, the more that I think about it the less homer-y it feels. Who is his top competition?

Being truthful here, we actually struggled to come up with a second linebacker to add to the mix. Bobby Okereke managed to make it although that feels a bit off given that he was a member of the Indianapolis Colts last year and not a part of the NFC East.

Secondary: Trevon Diggs, James Bradberry, Darius Slay, Donovan Wilson and Kamren Curl

The cornerbacks felt really obvious, but interestingly it was Gowton who argued a bit more for Stephon Gilmore (also part of the Colts last year like Okereke) over Slay.

It feels like there are a lot of Eagles fans down on Slay in general, but it is hard to argue with the value that he brought to their team last year. His biggest criticism is that his interceptions as an Eagle have come against less-than-great quarterbacks, and while that is fair, it’s hard putting Gilmore ahead of him right now. But bet on Gilmore taking Slay’s spot on this list next year.

As far as safeties are concerned, like Vander Esch, you can confidently say that Donovan Wilson is the best one of all four teams. Am I alone here?

Wilson was supremely better than anybody else from any team in 2022. That is an obvious part of this, the division is not exactly rich with safety talent, not to mention the hybrid-ization of the position with the way that (as just one example) Dan Quinn plays a player like Jayron Kearse.

Along those lines, it would make some sense to remove Okereke in the name of promoting Kearse to the team, but we ultimately decided against that.

The Dallas Cowboys had the strongest presence here with four players

Nobody hands out Lombardi trophies for having the most defensive players on an All-Star team on our podcast but if they did, the Dallas Cowboys would be in business, baby.

Ultimately the Cowboys did have the most players present and accounted for.

  • Cowboys (4): Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, Trevon Diggs and Donovan Wilson
  • Eagles (3): Haason Reddick, James Bradberry and Darius Slay
  • Giants (2): Dexter Lawrence and Bobby Okereke
  • Commanders (2): Daron Payone and Kamren Curl

This list does feel representative of the way that the defenses finished last season with Dallas being the highest in defensive DVOA (second) with the Eagles as the next-closest (sixth). What’s more is that the Cowboys had a representative at every position group which speaks to their talent all the way through that side of the ball.

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