In the secondary, the Dallas Cowboys at least have a pretty good idea of who the main players are likely to be. This is in contrast to both the defensive line and the linebackers, where even the few players expected to start have some question marks concerning either their ability to hold off challengers or their health. With both the cornerbacks and the safeties, you can write in several names that are all but certain to be on the roster. What is still uncertain is just how well those players are going to perform. After some really bad performances last season by, well, almost all the defensive backs, the Cowboys need a lot of players to step it up.
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Dallas currently has sixteen DBs on the roster, split evenly between corners and safeties. The final roster would probably have around ten total, based on recent history. As for how they are split up, the Cowboys have gone with 5/5 and 6/4, weighted both ways, at various times (and often the mix has shifted as the season progresses).
The general consensus is that Dallas got less bang for its buck from the corners than any other position group. That falls squarely on two sets of shoulders, who join Bruce Carter in what I traditionally (as in just made it up) call the Sagging C's, based on how their lack of performance in 2013 let the team down. Since they come first up alphabetically, I'll stick with that order for both the secondary groups.
Needs to live up to his contract. Dallas spent a boatload of money bringing Brandon Carr in from Kansas City, and he did not come close to being worth the cost. With almost $17 million in dead money this year, it is also almost impossible for the Cowboys to part ways with him. He has to play better. And he is not alone.
Needs to live up to his draft pick. Dallas spent a boatload of draft picks, valuewise, to trade up and get Morris Claiborne, and he did not . . . stop me if you've heard this before.
The more optimistic among us are hoping that things will be markedly better for the pair, based on two things. First, both Carr and Claiborne are at their best as press corners, but they were used a lot in zone coverage last season under Monte Kiffin. With Rod Marinelli taking over as defensive coordinator, indications are that they will revert to playing the way they do best. The indications include not only word coming out of the players and staff, but the way the corners were being used in OTAs and minicamp. The second is that this is the second year playing the 4-3. The scheme should be much more familiar now. This is seen as especially significant for Claiborne, who did look uncomfortable at times last season.
A rookie to watch. Oregon, Terrance Mitchell's alma mater, is on the quarter system, which means that under NFL rules Mitchell was not able to participate in the OTAs because school was still in session. He was able to get on the practice field for the minicamp. Numerous observers were quite impressed by the fact that he looked good out there, like he had been in all the prior practices. It was probably his mental preparedness that jumped out; he just knew what he was supposed to do and was in position to do it. He looks to be a very good bet to fight his way onto the 53 man roster.
Can he break through this year? Sterling Moore has gotten some very good reviews during training camp in the past couple of years. Despite this, he did not make the roster to start the season. However, he wound up getting brought back later on, playing five games in both 2012 and 2013. He will be trying to convince the team that they might as well keep him from the beginning this time around.
An undrafted rookie to watch. Tyler Patmon was a name that got some nice mentions for his play. As a UDFA, he is also in play for the practice squad.
Another undrafted rookie to watch. Dashaun Phillips also caught some eyes. As Bryan Broaddus put it, the three rookie corners bring different things to the table, but none of them looked uncomfortable in the pro game. The battle for the last backup spot should be fierce and entertaining.
The reliable one. While Carr and Claiborne had their struggles, nickle corner Orlando Scandrick just went out and staked his claim as the best cornerback the team has, period. Far and away the most consistent of the group last season, he is probably going to be contending for the starting position Claiborne filled last season. He would still probably work in the slot when the team went nickle, but look to him to carry that bigger load this season, at least to start.
The one in trouble. B.W. Webb struggled when he was called on last season. He is going to have to show marked improvement to beat out players like Moore and the three rookies this season, despite representing a fourth-round pick in 2013. Early reviews are not very encouraging.
Webb was not the only DB to struggle when forced in to play. Some of the safeties were in a similar situation. But so far, they seem to be doing somewhat better. The staff felt good enough about who they already have that Stephen Jones defended the decision to not use a draft pick before the seventh round to add to their numbers.
The new leader of the defense? When Sean Lee fell (and the skies themselves wept, the stars dimmed, and nature itself mourned - or maybe I exaggerate), the question came up as to who would become the new leader for the defense. One name mentioned, by more than one person, was Barry Church. He is also going to be one of the veterans among a bunch of younger players. And as the team leader in tackles last season, he has the credibility to step forward. His starting job is probably the most secure one on the defense.
Hard hitting rookie. That seventh round pick mentioned above is Ahmad Dixon. His reputation is that he is a hard hitter who is willing to stick his nose into things. That may be what the team is looking for, especially since special teams ace Danny McCray is no longer on the roster.
Possible breakout player? There was some very positive buzz about Jakar Hamilton, who saw limited play last season. With the safety depth chart basically reading "1. Church 2. Maybe Wilcox 3. Everybody else", there is certainly an opportunity for him and all the young players looking to make a name.
Coming back from a beatdown. Jeff Heath, like Hamilton a small school UDFA last season, was thrown into the fire well before he was really ready. He had the second most snaps of any safety on the team, behind only Church, but they did not go so well. Too often he was getting beat on passes, often badly. Still, he notched the sixth most tackles on the defense. If he can show some serious improvement in his play this season, he will come with some mental toughness already developed.
The unicorn. I really don't have anything to say about Matt Johnson until he actually lines up in a real NFL game. He did, however, kinda win Twitter for the 4th.
The out of place linebacker. When I was working on this post, I noticed a discrepancy between the numbers I had and those OCC used in his post on the meaning of the current NFC East 90 man rosters. I showed one more DB than he did, and the difference turned out to be Keith Smith, who played linebacker at San Jose State, and is listed as one in some sources, but who is shown on the roster at DallasCowboys.com as a safety. An article from the San Jose State website states that Dallas signed him as a safety, so that is where I count him.
The Dallas roster also shows him as 6'00" tall and 199 lbs., which would be one reason the team wants to move him. Other sources show him weighing 233, so I am not sure how heavy he really is. Whatever he actually weighs, the Cowboys probably want to see how well he can hit out there.
The other safety named Smith. Dallas signed two UDFA safeties this season with the same last name. Ryan Smith is the other, and I am not going to pretend to know a lot about him. He does look to be a pretty sizable guy at 227 lbs, per the roster, so he and Keith are likely trying out for the same role.
The presumptive number two. J.J. Wilcox is being penciled in by most as the other starter with Church. As with Hamilton and Heath, the hope is that he is going to show some major improvement his second year. Given that he did not struggle as much as the other safeties in his class, that may work out quite well.
Those are the current defensive backs. Dallas will be going into this season with a lot of familiar names, but is hoping for some very unfamiliar play. If the players do improve, the year could be much better for the Cowboys. If.