Follow this bouncing ball:
What's this? It the yardage ranking for Dallas' pass defense. That final number offers a puzzle. How did a back seven which had the luxury of Demarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer rushing, a top four rushing defense and good health (2009 was the first year since 2006 when both starting cornerbacks started all 16 games) take such a dip in yardage?
The answers suggest that cornerback should not be pushed from the top tier of Dallas' wish list come April.
Big D Hasn't Meant Durability
Many fans have overlooked the fragile nature of cornerback this spring, because the Cowboys anticipated trio of cornerbacks held together last season. To do so betrays a short-term memory. How often did Anthony Henry break down in a Dallas uniform? How often has Terence Newman wound up on the injured list since his body's clock hit 30?
Quite a bit. Henry signed in 2005 and spent four injury-riddled years in the lineup. He missed six games in both '05 and '07 with an assortment of sprains and pulls. His only 16-for-16 came in '06 and that was only because he soldiered on with loose bodies in a knee that locked up on him during the melt-down month of December, when the Cowboys secondary surrendered 15 touchdown passes.
Mike Jenkins stepped in on the right side and provided an increasingly tough man-to-man coverage. That said, how many of you had a sinking feeling in late August, when Jenkins rolled an ankle late in training camp and had to sit for nearly a month?
Jenkins' quick recovery provided the anchor for a corner unit which stumbled badly into the new season. Orlando Scandrick suffered the dreaded sophomore slump, giving up big plays in the slot on a regular basis through October. He improved a lot in the second half but fell off from the player who looked like he could challenge for a starting spot at the end of his rookie year.
Cornerback is a fickle position in the best of circumstances. K.C. Joyner forwarded me his collected YPA metrics from '04 through '07 and I produced a composite chart which found that very few corners could repeat their top-level metrics from year to year. The players who topped the charts in one season would drop down badly the next and rebound the next season.
The corners who maintained top 15 play every year of the survey could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Terence Newman ranked 2nd overall over that span, partly because he was durable; Newman did not miss a single start from '03 through '06. Then, something the core-area pulls and tears ensued and Newman missed 11 starts in '07 and '08. Newman made it through camp last year but started the season as if he were hurt. The Bucs Michael Clayton and the Giants receivers flambeed Newman in September. Newman kept Brandon Marshall under wraps for 55 minutes but the Broncos wideout burned Newman for the game winner in the waning minutes.
Newman seemed to find a spark at mid-season, after a very public spat with position coach Dave Campo. Newman began to play more physically. He teed up receivers and took penalties for hits which crossed the legal line. He became more aggressive on the corner and finished the season with two masterful performances against the Eagles DeSean Jackson.
The Cowboys loved their corners in December, but can they count on getting a full season from all three in '10, given the yo-yoing which goes on every year, and given Newman's touchy groin muscles?
I doubt it. Quick, name the 4th Cowboys corner. Can you do it? Do you trust him to man one of the edge positions or the slot if one of the top three goes down? Do you think '09 was the anomaly for Newman or were '07 and '08? Will Scandrick take a step forward or has he plateaued?
The Cowboys are not taking cornerback for granted. I understand they are intensely researching this year's deep crop of cornerbacks, and like several of them. They're obviously still looking for tackles and safeties but don't be surprised if you see a cornerback picked in one of the early rounds. The Cowboys can't afford to play secondary whack a mole. All they gain from drafting an Earl Thomas or a Nate Allen could be undone if one of Jenkins, Newman or Scandrick spend any time on the injured list.