Along with the lack of a pass rush and season-long struggle to find enough healthy linebackers, the Dallas Cowboys also had some very spotty performances from the secondary. It is a tribute to the coaching of Rod Marinelli that he made the material he had to work with look so good, and there was admittedly a bit of smoke and mirrors involved. The one thing the defense was fairly good at was getting timely turnovers. The multiple deficiencies were also masked to some degree by the ball control offense that Dallas ran, which kept the defense on the sidelines in many games, limiting their exposure. Add in some key stops, and Marinelli managed to make it work despite the problems.That, however, fell apart to a great extent in the playoff game against the Green Bay Packers. Making sure that would not happen this season became an obvious priority this offseason.
Now the Cowboys have added talent, through free agency, the draft, and having some injured players return to the field. The most attention has been paid to the defensive line, where the additions of Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory plus the anticipated improvement from players like Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence, is expected to dial up the pass rush more than a notch or two. The return of Sean Lee is in itself a significant boost for the linebackers, and the team also invested there in free agent and draft capital.
The talk has been a little less prevalent about the secondary, even though cornerback Byron Jones was the first overall pick. In 2014, the team had one standout corner in Orlando Scandrick, a serviceable Brandon Carr who appeared to improve his play late in the season, and a couple of safeties in Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox who look more suited to play strong safety than free safety. With the addition of Jones, how much more can Marinelli, Jerome Henderson and Joe Baker get out of the DBs?
Actual production is still to be determined, but what emerged in OTAs was a tantalizing hint of how things may come together. And if this works like the team seems to be hoping it will, then things may be much better indeed.
For information about what goes on at practices, the best source I have found in the years I have been sharing my ramblings is Bryan Broaddus. His experience as a scout shows in what he reports.
One player that almost all the fans have written off is Morris Claiborne. The former first-round pick, obtained with a large expenditure of draft resources, has been a disappointment. Most of this can be traced to him not being healthy since his first training camp with the Cowboys. Last season, he was still struggling and then he went down again with injury before the team even got to October. The ruptured patellar tendon is a very severe injury, far worse than an ACL. It was thought he was doubtful to be ready for the start of training camp this year. But now Broaddus is saying that we may be surprised, based on what he saw during the OTAs, Claiborne was more active than anyone anticipated.
While it is hard to get hopes up too much, the fact is that Claiborne was a very effective corner in college - when he was largely injury free. Now, if he is able to get in a full camp of work, he may finally be able to show why the Cowboys went after him. It is also his contract year since Dallas did not pick up his fifth-year option. The motivation is there. If he can indeed start to contribute on the field, it will be a rather unexpected bonus.
The selection of Byron Jones in the first round was largely to insure that the Cowboys did not have to rely on Claiborne's recovery. In the OTAs, Jones lived up to his billing. He played well and showed no issues at all with the crucial mental aspect of the game. One big plus that made him so attractive is that he has experience as a safety as well as a corner. The coaches worked him at both positions during camp, and the early returns are positive, per Broaddus.
I continue to be impressed by the growth of Byron Jones as a player and how he has responded to every challenge these coaches have put in front of him. In three weeks, Jones has lined up at every position in the secondary. He has played both corners, slot and now safety. On Wednesday, he lined up deep and then two plays later moved down in the box as a linebacker in coverage. What I really liked about Jones' day is that when he was lined up deep you saw that confidence in his communication and reactions -- which you don't always find from a rookie in the secondary.
If he is indeed available to help out as a free safety when the Cowboys go into nickel coverage, and Claiborne is able to step up and man one of the corner positions, the secondary may be in much better shape. Jones is not the only possible solution here, either. Dallas also acquired free agent Corey White during the offseason. Most observers did not expect much of him based on his career so far, but a new environment and culture can sometimes make a significant difference. That is what Broaddus saw.
It appeared when White was claimed off waivers from the Saints that all the fans wanted to focus on was some ranking that a scouting service had on the player and not dig into deeper of all the positions he could play in the secondary.
My scouting report on White was that he was a much better slot player than he was on the outside, but I don't believe I have given him enough credit for how he has played on the outside in these practices. What I have also noticed about White's game is that he can line up as a true free safety or walk down in the box and play like a linebacker in coverage.
He has been competitive in every job the coaches have asked him to do. White has shown me that he is not afraid of the matchups he gets.
Notice how similar the descriptions are of Jones and White when they were tasked with the safety role. That indicates one or possibly both of two possibilities. First, Broaddus was probably paying a lot of attention to this particular use of the players. And second, the coaches were focusing on this experiment.
Now add in that Wilcox is still growing in his role, having very limited experience at safety in college. And second-year player Tyler Patmon is also in a position to provide more as a depth player. There are now several things that may contribute to a marked upswing in the team's performance in pass coverage. Just as with the front seven, the secondary looks to have a much better toolbox this season than in 2014.
This still has to work out once the pads come on in training camp, and carry through when Dallas lines up against other teams. But this bit of optimism seems to have a legitimate basis. It is a combination of good scouting and talent acquisition with strong and creative coaching. Mark this down as another facet of the 2015 edition of the Cowboys to keep an eye on in minicamp and especially after they get to Oxnard.