The way defense is played in the NFL has changed dramatically in recent seasons. But some Cowboys defensive players have stood the test of time.
Plays are reviewed in slow motion by refs to review personal fouls, quarterbacks and receivers are more protected than ever by officials and offenses have shifted to pass-first schemes rather than ground-and-pound.
But stacking players of NFL’s past up against today’s players remains interesting through all the change.
Here are the five best defensive players in Cowboys history:
5. DeMarcus Ware
Ware was Dallas’ anchor on defense for nine seasons before finishing his career with the Denver Broncos, where he won a Super Bowl.
His most dominant season came in 2008 when the linebacker recorded 20 sacks, tied for the 12th most in a single-season in league history. Three seasons later, Ware recorded 19.5 sacks which tied him for 14th on the same list.
Ware’s 117 sacks are the most in franchise history and he goes down as one of the best Cowboys to never win a ring (in Dallas).
4. Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones
Jones may not be number one on our list, but his life would undoubtedly make for the best movie.
In high school, Jones was an All-American basketball player and received multiple division-one offers. He was stud on the baseball diamond, too. Too Tall fielded offers from MLB teams to join their farm league teams out of high school. Jones didn’t even play football until his senior year because his school didn’t have a team to that point. Even then, he only played three games.
After committing to Tennessee State, Jones wasn’t getting the playing time he felt he deserved on the basketball team. So he dropped the sport and joined football. His college coach John Merritt molded him into a force coming off the edge to rush the QB.
Then Dallas drafted Jones with the first overall pick in the 1974 draft. This made him the first player from a Historically Black College or University to go first in the NFL Draft.
After five seasons as a Cowboy, Jones briefly retired to pursue a career in boxing because when he was young, that was the sport he was most passionate about. He had a 5-0 record in only three months before returning the next season to play with Dallas again.
Most players would come back from a season-long stint from football and lose a step. But if you haven’t learned yet, expect the unexpected from Too Tall.
He went on to play 10 more seasons and finished with a Super Bowl win, three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro selection. HIs 106 sacks are the fourth-most in franchise history.
3. Mel Renfro
The sure-handed defensive back had a nose for the ball through his 14 seasons as a Cowboy. In that time, he intercepted 52 passes and returned the ball 626 yards, putting him atop Dallas’ all-time leaderboard in both categories.
Coach Tom Landry let Renfro flash his elusiveness on special teams as a punt and kick returner, too. Renfro had the most return yards in the NFL his rookie year in 1964.
His biggest contributions came in the 1971 playoffs when Renfro had three interceptions in three games en route to the first Super Bowl in franchise history. He’d win another Super Bowl in 1977 along with 10 Pro Bowl appearances, all coming consecutively starting his rookie year.
2. Randy White
The Manster was one of the most intimidating players in the NFL through his 14-year career in the 1970s and 1980s. He was an iron man, playing in 209 games and missing only one.
White was a solid linebacker his first two seasons in Dallas. But his Hall of Fame career started taking form when coach Landry moved White to the defensive line in year three. It would prove to be a smart decision that allowed White to record 111 career sacks, the third most in franchise history.
White ended his career with nine Pro Bowls, seven All-Pros and one Super Bowl victory that he was a co-MVP of.
1. Bob Lilly
Mr. Cowboy was a first round draft pick in 1961 and goes down as the first player ever drafted by Dallas, the first Dallas player inducted into the Hall of Fame and the first player in the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
The former TCU Horned Frog was a giant at 6’5, 260-pounds. He used his strength and speed to become both a skilled pass rusher and run stopper.
Playing in the trenches of the defensive line can be grueling, yet Lilly managed to play in every game through his 14 seasons as a pro.
His ability to stay off the injured list led to a decorated career: 11 Pro Bowls, seven All-Pros and the defensive leader of the Cowboys first Super Bowl win in 1971.