FRISCO, Texas – Robert Quinn said he had “people chirping in my ear both ways.”
The veteran defensive end was preparing for a trade in March. He visited top suitors Dallas and New Orleans. Then, given some agency in determining his landing spot, he needed to decide which NFC team Miami would deal him to.
Quinn chose the Cowboys.
"This trade was a little different because I had two options," Quinn said from his new locker after a minicamp practice in June. "More professionally, they kind of allowed me to pick and choose where I wanted to go. When I had the opportunity to get traded here, I was definitely excited."
“It was more of a gut feeling. Sometimes your gut leads you in the right direction. … So far, it’s been a great transition for me.”
Quinn considered coaches like defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and head coach Jason Garrett in his decision. He mulled the opportunity to play with teammates like Dak Prescott and DeMarcus Lawrence. He also weighed the move from a rebuilding Dolphins franchise to a playoff-contending Cowboys team – though that factor didn’t differentiate his options much, with the Saints a possession away from reaching last season’s Super Bowl.
Instead, Quinn said, the Cowboys’ style of play became the deciding factor. A two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Rams from 2013-14, Quinn could provide the team experience to the tune of 69 sacks across eight NFL seasons. The Cowboys, conversely, could offer Quinn freedom in scheme.
“Specifically, it was the way they allowed the D-line to play high-flying,” Quinn said. “We get to attack and get in the backfield more than in other places. I think it was kind of one of those where we could have fun and disrupt the backfield which they want us to do.
“Have you seen the Cowboys play? If you watch it, they’re always in the backfield.”
Cowboys coaches hope Quinn, too, will be a regular backfield presence come fall.
“We’re going,” Marinelli said. “We’ve got some great freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility.”
Dallas signed Lawrence, coming off two Pro Bowl seasons with a combined 25 sacks, to a five-year, $105 million contract in April. Lawrence will again anchor the left defensive end when he returns from rehabbing offseason shoulder surgery. But defensive end Randy Gregory, who played 44.6 percent of defensive snaps for the Cowboys in 2018, is serving an indefinite suspension for violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Quinn and Gregory posted similar production in 2018: Quinn had 6 1/2 sacks, 38 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hits in 16 games, while Gregory compiled six sacks, 25 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 15 hits in 14 games.
The Cowboys hope Quinn will ensure a frenetic right-edge presence against both the pass and run.
Defensive-line play in padless organized team activities and minicamp practices can only provide limited insight, Marinelli said. But the 69-year-old defensive coordinator liked his early impressions of Quinn. Marinelli compared Quinn’s work ethic to one of his former pupils, Simeon Rice, who amassed 122 sacks and 28 forced fumbles. Marinelli coached Rice on Tampa Bay’s 2002 Super Bowl team.
“You work with a guy like that, you don’t work against him,” Marinelli said of Quinn. “You find out what he can do, and then you build off that.”
Marinelli touted Quinn’s ability to set the edge and integrate details into his technique. Look for Quinn to complement Lawrence’s run defense, Marinelli said.
“I’m telling you, what’s he’s really going to be is a good run defender just like D-Law,” Marinelli said. “Lizards over there – racing lizards who can play the run.”
Quinn said run defense will be among his goals for the defensive line. The Cowboys return a deep linebacker corps led by Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee. The team spent little to bolster its secondary in the offseason, waiting until the sixth round to draft Texas A&M safety Donovan Wilson and signing veteran George Iloka to a one-year deal in free agency. Cowboys management said it believes the rush – including defensive tackle Trysten Hill, whom Dallas drafted with its top pick in the second round – will compensate for coverage weaknesses, so the team is philosophically comfortable with investing less on safeties. Undrafted pickup Jeff Heath and 2016 sixth-round selection Xavier Woods started in 2018.
Quinn said he likes the challenge of facing Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith in practices. He is adjusting to what he considers tough coaching from Marinelli and the “wild” but “genuine” personality of Cowboys Hall of Fame pass rusher Charles Haley, who joined offseason practices. He’s still learning his way around the luxurious Cowboys headquarters at the Star, even needing a reporter to identify the cologne from Prescott’s line that rested unopened on the shelf of Quinn’s locker. (“Is that what that is?” Quinn said when asked. “I seen it sitting up there all this [and] didn’t know what it was. I’m going to give it a try now.”)
But at the top of his mind, Quinn says, are statistical goals that include leading the league in sacks, tackles for loss and forced fumbles. And tapping into that freestyle defensive line play that swayed him toward the Cowboys.
“Making plays is what we have to do to basically keep a job so if you don’t give yourself something to shoot for and look forward to, you’re selling yourself short,” Quinn said. “I like to set the bar high and see where the chips lay at the end of the day.”
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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